Day 1239: Michael O’Halloran

Cover for Michael O'HalloranSome of Gene Stratton-Porter’s more well-known novels have been favorites since I was a girl and favorites of my mother before me. I’m speaking particularly of A Girl of the Limberlost, Laddie, A True Blue Story, and to a lesser extent, Freckles. In most of her novels (Laddie is an exception), she features disadvantaged young people who improve their lives through honest hard work, perseverance, and a love of nature. (Laddie wins his girl through honest hard work, perseverance, and a love of nature.) Stratton-Porter has a tendency toward melodrama that I think wasn’t unusual for popular fiction of the time, and most of the time you just go with the flow. So, I was pleased to find Michael O’Halloran, a novel from 1915 that I had never read, in a used bookstore.

Michael, or Mickey, is a young newsboy. He has been living on his own since his mother went away ill. At the beginning of the novel, he takes on another youngster, a crippled girl named Peaches, whose grandmother has just died. Both children fear the state orphanage.

Mickey attracts the attention of Douglas Bruce, a lawyer, when he has a fight with another newsboy who tries to cheat him. Bruce is struck by his insistence that things be “square,” that is, honest. He wants to be Mickey’s “big brother” and help him make his way, but Mickey is too independent. He is also familiar with another man who has a “little brother,” Mr. Minturn. Mickey and a respectable woman witnessed a nanny battering the head of Mr. Minturn’s daughter against concrete and then coaching her two brothers in a lie when the little girl became unresponsive. After she died, Mickey and the woman tried to tell Mrs. Minturn about it, but she called them liars. Then they tried Mr. Minturn, but he did nothing.

It was at that point that the novel lost me. Bruce and his fianceé, Lesley Winton, already had a project to try to reconcile the Minturns to each other. After that story and their daughter’s death, I didn’t want to read about them, and I could see where the plot was leading me. Also, Stratton-Porter can have a tendency toward sappiness, especially when she depicts children. Mickey’s story was already quite saccharine. I was willing to put up with that until the Minturns turned up. With regret, I decided not to finish this novel.

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Day 1226: Turtles All the Way Down

Cover for Turtles All the Way DownI’ve only read two books by John Green, but he seems to have the teenage sensibility down, as well as specializing in damaged heroines. In this case, the problem is mental illness.

Aza is subject to compulsive thoughts, so much so that at times she doesn’t feel in control of herself. Her obsessions center around the microbes in the human body.

Aza’s friend Daisy is a real firecracker who blogs romantic stories about Star Wars characters. She sets off the action in the novel by suggesting that she and Aza investigate the disappearance of Russell Pickett, a corporate CEO who is under investigation. The authorities are offering a reward of $100K for information leading to his discovery, and Daisy thinks they have an in because of Aza’s former friendship with Davis, his son.

Aza reluctantly goes along with Daisy’s idea to contact Davis but finds things complicated. Davis is glad their neglectful father is gone, but his little brother is suffering. To make matters worse, Aza is attracted to Davis, who knows very well the reason the two girls came calling.

Green seems to specialize in bitter-sweet, and this novel is no exception. It is very entertaining and ultimately touching. Aza’s problems are handled with understanding and delicacy. (It seems that Green also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.) This is another winner for John Green.

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Day 1175: Anne of Avonlea

Cover for Anne of AvonleaA while back, some bloggers were having an Anne of Green Gables reading challenge. That led me to reread Anne of Green Gables, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it held up for adults. Other bloggers went ahead and read the entire series.

I don’t think I read the entire series when I was a girl, but I know I read up through the time when Anne married Gilbert, so I’m guessing I read three or four books back then. When I ran across a copy of Anne of Avonlea, the second book in the series, I decided to give it a try as an adult.

In this book, Anne is sixteen and just about to begin her career as a schoolteacher in Avonlea. Most of her old friends are also teachers at nearby schools. The novel follows her adventures during the next two years as she teaches, makes new friends, and begins to grow up a little. She and Marilla also take on the upbringing of two six-year-old distant cousins of Marilla, Davey and Dora.

I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this book as much. The dreamy, romantic Anne, with all her comments about fairies and so on isn’t as convincing as an older girl. The novel relies for humor mostly on the comments of Anne’s students and the misbehavior of Davey. I found the first a little cloying, and I couldn’t help comparing the second to a similar situation in A Girl of the Limberlost, which is handled much better. I have to admit to not developing any feelings for any of these children, whereas Anne as a child was very sympathetic.

Finally, there’s not much of a sense of plot to this novel. It is almost as if, in these transitional years, Montgomery didn’t know what to do with Anne. The most dramatic events center around her friend, Miss Lavendar Lewis, but they are predictable. I think this is a book that adolescent or pre-adolescent girls might love, but it holds little attraction for me.

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Day 1121: Salt to the Sea

Cover for Salt to the SeaAt the end of World War II, three teenagers are among the refugees fleeing through East Prussia from the Russians. Joanna is a Lithuanian nurse who was patriated into Germany. Emilia is a young Polish girl with no papers. Florian is a Prussian on a mission.

Salt to the Sea follows these three on their flight, as well as Alfred, a Nazi sailor helping ready the Wilhelm Gustloff for its load of refugees. The novel switches among the points of view of these narrators in brief chapters.

And this is one of its fundamental problems. The novel jumps back and forth between narrators, allowing us to really know no one. To add further to that distancing, most other characters are referred to only by their professions or other attributes, even fairly important ones such as the old shoemaker travelling with the group. The result is that we don’t really care about any of the characters.

Further, this novel shares an attribute with much other young adult fiction that I dislike. It is told in first person—in this case four first persons—which is not necessarily a problem. But except for Alfred’s, the narratives are indistinguishable in style and written in short, choppy sentences with simple structure, as if the assumption is made that young adults have no complex thoughts. To make things worse, some of the metaphorical language is excruciating. Witness the following:

And for some reason those words are now caught, like a hair, in the drain of my mind.

Of course, this sentence is from the abhorrent Alfred, but similar excrescences come from the other narratives.

Finally, the chopped up narrative style so slows down the action at the end of the book that, combined with the distance we feel from the characters, it makes the climax of the novel actually boring. And really (spoiler), when a torpedo hits the ship, the only description Sepetys can think of is “Bang!” repeated four times?

The evacuation of the refugees and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff make an important story, but sadly Sepetys is not the writer to tell it.

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Day 917: Neverwhere

Cover for NeverwhereI haven’t read any Neil Gaiman except a book about a witch that he wrote with Terry Pratchett. That one was very silly, but I thought I should read some more Gaiman since he is so popular. I should maybe mention that fantasy is not usually my genre, with notable exceptions.

Richard Mayhew is happy with his life. He is a successful young investment counselor and is engaged to a beautiful but demanding woman. One night when they are on the way out for an important dinner with his fiancée’s boss, he finds an injured girl lying on the sidewalk. The girl is filthy, and Richard’s fiancée wants him to call an ambulance and leave her there. But Richard picks her up and takes her to his apartment.

We have already met the girl, being chased by two villains named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar through dirty dark tunnels. When the two men come to Richard’s apartment looking for the girl, he says she is not there.

The girl’s name is Door, and she asks Richard if he will go somewhere for her and fetch the Marquis de Carabas. Doing this favor takes him to a strange world underneath London. Richard returns Door to the Marquis, but once she is gone, he realizes he can’t return to his own world. When he tries to, people can’t see him. He finds he has no job, no fiancée, and his flat is in the midst of being let to someone else. He returns to the other world to get help from Door.

Door is the daughter of Lord Portico, a family famous for opening things. Recently, her entire family was slaughtered by Croup and Vandemar, and she wants to find out who ordered it and why. When she returns home to find her father’s diary, it tells her to go to Islington, a legendary angel. Richard finds himself accompanying Door, the Marquis, and Door’s bodyguard Hunter on a dangerous quest through this alternate world that makes its home in the London underground, with characters whose names play on the names of underground stations.

At times this novel seems quite juvenile. In fact, partway through I started trying to figure out if it was intended for adults at all. This is because the humor often seems to be aimed at 14-year-old boys, for example, a villain who is constantly eating live slugs and pigeons. But the Introduction states that it is meant for adults, to do for them what books like the Chronicles of Narnia did for Gaiman as a child.

For this adult, anyway, it fails. I was mildly sympathetic to Richard’s plight, but the book doesn’t do enough with the characters to get us more interested in them. And I wasn’t enamored of Gaiman’s vision of a filthy, mud-filled underworld of strange beings.

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Day 790: Jade

Cover for JadeOf the Sally Watson books I rediscovered, Jade is one I haven’t read before. I’ve mentioned that Watson wrote several of her novels around a person from her own ancestry, but it is not clear to me if the outlines of each story are based on family legend or are just invented around the events of the time. This question becomes of special interest in regard to Jade, which is the least likely of Watson’s books to date, even if part of it is based on history.

Jade’s real name is Melanie Lennox, but she much prefers her old nickname. She is a rebellious girl completely taken up by her own ideas of right and wrong. She is especially incensed by slavery and women’s lack of rights, which makes early 18th century Williamburg an uncomfortable place for her and for her family, who doesn’t know what to do with her.

The last straw for Jade’s father is when he finds she has been sneaking off to meet Monsieur Maupin, an elderly Frenchman, for fencing lessons. Tired of beating her, her father ships her off to Jamaica to live with her aunt and uncle. With her goes her slave Joshua, whom she’s been trying to free since she was 10.

In Jamaica, she is disgusted by the slave market and the treatment of field slaves, so her aunt and uncle are surprised when she wants to buy a proud untamed African woman, whom she names Domino. But Jade sees something in Domino that reminds her of herself. In fact, Jade isn’t really getting along any better in Jamaica, but doesn’t stay there long.

Jade’s aunt and uncle hear of yellow fever on the island, so they dispatch Jade and her two slaves back to Virginia. They return on the same ship they came on, but this time it is loaded with slaves. Jade decides to try to free the slaves, in which effort she doesn’t realize she’s assisted by the sardonic second mate, Rory McDonald (whose grandmother was Kelpie from Witch of the Glen).

I wasn’t quite prepared for what happens next, but maybe I should have been. Their ship is attacked by pirates and she and Rory and some other crew members and the slaves decide to join the pirates. Well, Jade and Rory are taken on board unconscious, but like Elizabeth Swann of Pirates of the Caribbean, Jade at first decides it’s “a pirate’s life for me.” Only later does her view of the life become more nuanced.

The novel’s plot is unlikely, even though it is based on the life of the famous pirate, Anne Bonny (spelled Bonney in the novel), whose ship our characters end up on. And Jade is not strictly likable, her character being so full of self-righteousness and so unbending that she can’t tell a polite lie. Also, the novel tends much more to the preachy than those I’ve read so far of Watson’s.

Still, this novel is probably a good one for insights into the abuses of the time, while still providing plenty of adventure. Little feminists in the making will be sympathetic to the restrictions Jade struggles with, such as her dislike of what she must wear, her lack of rights as a woman, and the limits to what she’s allowed to do. I personally think she’s too much of a 20th century girl, but young girls won’t even think of that.

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Day 765: Mistress Malapert

Cover for Mistress MalapertMistress Malapert was my favorite of Sally Watson’s books years ago, the rediscovery of which I discussed in my review of Lark. The only thing that might keep it from still being my favorite is its attempt at Elizabethan English, not entirely convincing although not horrible, even used sometimes in the narrative parts of the book. Watson in her updated notes at the end of the book says she wishes she hadn’t used so much of it but that she was inexperienced as it was her second book. Still, as a young reader, it clearly didn’t bother me. I’m not even sure I noticed it.

Valerie Leigh has been raised for years by her wealthy, childless aunt and uncle, who have given her everything she asks for. Now she is back with her own family, and they don’t know what to do with her. At fourteen, she has a nasty temper that appears whenever she doesn’t get what she wants. Her temper is over quickly and she always sincerely apologizes, but that doesn’t stop her from behaving in a truly outrageous manner when she is angry.

When Valerie’s parents are dispatched by her mother’s distant cousin, Queen Elizabeth, on a foreign embassy, they leave Valerie and her sister Audrey in the care of their stern Uncle Gil, who is determined to tame Valerie. Of course, she isn’t going to put up with much of this.

At a fair, she is fascinated by a troupe of players, especially the boy who plays the part of the princess. She decides it is unfair that girls aren’t allowed to act. Later, when Uncle Gil punishes her for fighting, she decides to run away. She disguises herself as a boy and runs off to join the traveling players, a plot straight from Shakespeare.

Val finds she has a talent for the stage, but her adventures on the stage aren’t all this novel is about. Slowly, she learns some lessons about her responsibilities to the other players and about the kind of person she really wants to be. To be that person, she must learn to control her temper and think of others.

I found this book quite enjoyable and think that many preteens and young teens might like it as well. Val has the opportunity to meet Shakespeare and even Queen Elizabeth by the end of the novel, and although I am not generally fond of historical novels where the main, invented character somehow meets lots of famous people, in this novel it seemed perfectly reasonable. And by the way, I recently criticized the depiction by another writer of Shakespeare’s dialogue in her book for its lack of playfulness. When Val meets Shakespeare, his response is a little clumsy, but much more what I would expect:

Here be a valiant Val to have with us for a valediction. Be you a valid Valentine? Can ye play a valet? Put down your valise, valiant Val, and be you proved valuable, we’ll keep you till you be valanced with a white beard.

Don’t worry, it’s not all like this.

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