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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Day 742: Witch of the Glens

Cover for Witch of the GlensKelpie is about fourteen or fifteen and only remembers a gypsy life traveling with Mina and Bogle. They use her to steal and read the crystal, for she has second sight. Mina keeps promising to teach her witchcraft without actually showing her any. Still, they are often accused of being witches and hounded out of town.

Then one day she pretends to fall in front of a party of young men only to find she has actually injured herself. Although they catch her stealing from them, they are amused by her and take her home with them. The young men are Ian, Cameron, and Alex, returning from Oxford to their home north of Inverlochy.

Kelpie stays at Glenfern with Ian’s family, eventually as a servant, but they treat her kindly. She begins to feel affection for the children, especially little Mairie, and is dismayed when Mina and Bogle reappear. Mina threatens to curse the family if Kelpie refuses to come with them, and since Kelpie believes in Mina’s power, she goes.

The Highlands are in turmoil because Argyll has been commissioned to secure the area for the Calvinist Covenant against King Charles. Argyll’s troops are more prone to burn villages and murder innocents than to fight armies. But Montrose is trying to raise men to fight for the king. Mina sends Kelpie on a perilous task, to steal some hair or a personal possession from Argyll so he can be hexed.

Kelpie’s adventures take her all over the Highlands. When she joins the followers of Montrose’s army, she is happy to meet Ian and Alex again, but she has seen Alex strike Ian down in the crystal, so she is wary of him.

This is an enjoyable novel for tweens and teens full of likable characters and nasty villains, some history, lots of adventure, and another feisty Watson heroine. Kelpie begins re-evaluating her moral choices through the examples of others and the kindnesses she receives during her travels.

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Day 715: Lark

Cover for LarkJust an aside to start. When I was in high school, I had a job at the public library. There I discovered lots of authors I may not have come across elsewhere, and one of them was a writer of books for teens and preteens who specialized in historical novels featuring likable, feisty heroines. I read every one the library had.

Years later, I would try to remember who this author was to see if I could find some of her books and discover whether I still liked them as much. But all I could remember was she had a relatively common name that started with W. I searched Amazon for children’s books with authors beginning with a W. There are a lot of them. Then one day just awhile ago, a word popped into my head, “Lark.” A Google query accomplished the rest. I found a wonderful page on a site specializing in children’s books called “Stump the Bookseller” where you could ask exactly that kind of question, and more than one person asking about the author of a historical novel with a character named Lark. The author was Sally Watson. A little more searching found she is back in print.

* * *

Elizabeth Lennox has not been called by her nickname of Lark since her Uncle Jeremiah came and took her away from her family. He always thought she would make a good wife for her cousin Will-of-God if she was just raised correctly. Since he is one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers and Lark’s father was away fighting with the Royalists, he could do what he wanted. So, he took Lark away and she has been living miserably in a Puritan household ever since. She has no desire to marry Will-of-God, whom she dislikes. She deliberately tries to appear young so that her uncle won’t realize how close she is to being marriageable.

Lark has had nowhere else to go, since her family had to leave for the continent after their property was confiscated. But one day she receives word from her sister up in Scotland, so she decides to go there, not realizing how far away the Highlands are from southern England. She sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night and sets off.

James Trelawney is a young Royalist who disguises himself as a Roundhead to run errands and pass messages in the interests of Charles II. He comes along as Lark is being accosted by a Puritan man after singing a Cavalier song on the road. James takes her for a child, for she looks much younger than her thirteen years. After tossing the Puritan into the river, he reluctantly agrees to take her north, but only because she seems to be too young to leave on her own and she won’t tell him who she is. The two of them have adventures involving intrigue, capture, travels with gypsies, and other exciting incidents.

When I reread a children’s or young adult book, I try to evaluate how interesing it is for both the adult and the intended audience. I don’t think Lark has as much to offer an adult as some of the old classics I’ve reread recently, such as The Secret Garden or Anne of Green Gables. However, I did enjoy it as a bit of light reading. It is written for girls around ten to thirteen or fourteen years old. Although I loved it as a sixteen-year-old, older teens today may be a bit too sophisticated for it. I’m not sure. Still, it has plenty to recommend it, a good background in the history and a pleasant way of presenting it—through James’ confusion about his own loyalties—adventure, humor, and light romance. It is much more innocent than many of today’s books for teens, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Day 491: The Here and Now

Cover for The Here and NowI know that Ann Brashares is a popular author of books for teens and young adults, although I have not read her before. The Here and Now is a departure for her, though, because, although set in the present, it is in the science fiction genre.

Prenna and her people are from the future. They migrated back, fleeing from horrible conditions in our future, including a starving planet and a virulent disease called the blood plague that kills virtually everyone who is exposed to it. Prenna and her mother live with the others who came with them, and although they interact with “time natives,” they must obey stringent rules about staying uninvolved with them. Prenna finds this irksome and is aware of people being sent away for innocent mistakes.

Although she flies below the radar at school, Prenna has one friend, Ethan, who behaves sometimes as if he knows something about her. He does. She does not remember, but he witnessed her arrival a few years before. Prenna likes Ethan, but she is forced to keep their friendship on a superficial level.

Prenna’s contact with a homeless man sets up an unexpected chain of events. While trying to discover the cause of the man’s death, she and Ethan begin to believe they can change the course of the future by preventing one act.

I have written before about some characteristics of much young adult/teen fiction that I find annoying. One is a certain style of first-person narration that sounds too much like an adult trying to sound like a teen. It is used in this novel, only it is made worse by the preponderance of choppy sentences, especially in the dialogue. If Brashares believes teens can’t think and talk in complex sentences, she should read the dialogue in The Fault in Our Stars (which admittedly may be too sophisticated but strikes me as authentic). This tendency is worsened by the use of the present tense, almost always a poor choice for fiction.

But let’s look at the plot and characters, since those are what teens will think about. The only characters who are more than moderately developed are Prenna and Ethan. Brashares makes the mistake of believing we will automatically care about Prenna before we really get to know her. As for the other characters, Prenna’s mother is a total enigma who won’t even eat dinner with her daughter, although that is never explained. The other adults in Prenna’s group are basically cartoon villains.

http://www.netgalley.comWhether you can enjoy the plot depends on how much you can suspend your disbelief. I will just point out two things, as vaguely as possible. The first is the unlikelihood of Patient #1 of the blood plague being the same person whose totally separate act causes potential massive efforts to stop the horrible effects of global warming to be stillborn. (And by the way, I didn’t really appreciate the lecture about global warming that suddenly pops into the dialogue.) The second is the completely unbelievable results of Prenna and Ethan’s adventure.

I frankly had a very difficult time getting through this short novel. Teens may enjoy it, but I did not.

Day 487: The Book Thief

Cover for The Book ThiefLiesel Meminger is nine years old when she arrives at a house in a poor street near Munich. Her mother has given her and her brother up to a foster family because she cannot support them, but her little brother died on the train on the way there. She is dirty and illiterate, and when she arrives at the house of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, she has to be coaxed to come inside.

Although the Hubermanns prove to be loving parents and Hans eventually teaches Liesel to read, it is 1939 in Nazi Germany. Slowly, the difficulties of living in the Third Reich and the hardships of war will affect everyone she knows.

Liesel has already stolen her first book, when a grave digger dropped it the night her brother died. She steals her second book from a fire on the night of a book burning, for small and even large acts of defiance have become a part of her nature.

Zusak depicts a vivid life within Liesel’s little community. The boy that becomes her best friend, Rudy Steiner, has already distinguished himself before they meet by covering himself with soot and pretending to be Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics. Hans Hubermann is a failing painter and virtuoso accordion player who is ultimately too kind for his own good. His gruff wife Rosa shows her inner kindness by forcing people to eat her dreadful soup.

The novel is told by Death, which acts as an omniscient narrator, sometimes telling the back story, sometimes giving a glimpse of the future. At the beginning of the book, I thought I was going to find this irritating. By the middle of the book, I was wondering if it added anything that a traditional narrator wouldn’t provide. By the end, I thought it was effective. One little quirk of style that bothered me a little, though, was that Zusak occasionally creates his own words when perfectly good ones that are very similar already exist, like lovelily instead of lovely. I think this is an affectation that adds little to the novel.

The Book Thief accomplishes an unusual goal—to show that there were decent Germans during World War II. One of the kind and dangerous things that Hans Hubermann does is shelter a Jew, Max Vandenburg, in his basement for months. Liesel’s relationship with Max forms a core part of the story.

This novel is involving and affecting. It does have a few difficult scenes, but I think that it is a very readable experience for tweens, teens, and older readers. It has been wildly popular, so obviously readers are enjoying it.