Book Review: The Story of Owen, Dragonslayer of Trondheim

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars_

Overall: *** (3/5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up.

I read The Story of Owen in the more restful hours of my recent trip to New York City, and while I had a fun time joining Owen and Siobhan on their dragon slaying adventures, much of the plot has since escaped from my memory. (It’s possible that too many oysters distracted me.) So this will be just a few notes on what I liked about The Story of Owen, what I didn’t love, and why I’ve recommended it to some young people I know even though they don’t all love dragons. (A disclaimer: I went through a big ol’ fiery dragon phase in my middle school years. So huzzah!)

This is not a book I came across during some aimless shelf browsing. I read The Book Smugglers’ review a while ago and ordered it immediately. (Local bookstores will order Canadian YA-Ballads about modern mythical creatures if you ask them nicely.) I have a lot of faith in those ladies’ reviews; even if I don’t form the same opinions in my own reading, they highlight some real treasures I might otherwise neglect. The hardcover languished in a pile at my childhood home for months, though, until it finally struck me as the perfect epic-but-fun pastime for the train ride to the city. Ana’s review goes into better depth than this in analyzing the story and characters, so do give it a read. While I’m not equally as enamored with the book, I did find it to be refreshingly unique, so thanks to them for bringing E.K. Johnston’s work to my attention.

In brief, the story is told by Siobhan, a fairly-average high school student living in a small, rural Canadian town. Her town didn’t have a dragon slayer – they tend to hang around the big cities where there are more carbon emissions, and therefore more dragons, so the pay and publicity are better. When Lottie Thorskard and her family move to town, people can’t stop talking about the famous retired dragon slayer and her legacy. It’s a family business, so while her brother Aodhan defends farms and small businesses from fiery doom, Lottie trains her nephew Owen to take up the sword of duty. Siobhan trains Owen in Algebra, which is less epic but also necessary, and he’s way worse at math than he is at stabbing a dragon in exactly the right place to avoid toxic death-spillage. When the Thorskgards learn that Siobhan is a talented musician, they decide to bring back the old Bard traditions from the olden days of dragon slaying, when a tale well-told and just the right song could turn a slayer’s deeds from action into legend. So begins a friendship and partnership between Owen and Siobhan that will give them strength to face the whirlwind of high school and, hopefully, the dangers of ravenous monsters. They need to get heroic fast, too, because the dragons are getting bolder, and one Thorskard isn’t going to be enough to defend the people of Trondheim. A noble tradition of millenia is getting shaken up with the modern times, and Siobhan might have to do more than write songs about it.

Things I liked:

– The narrative style is framed in the ballad format that Siobhan is learning as she stumbles through the motions of becoming Owen’s bard. I love the old sagas and oral histories, though they can get dry and plodding sometimes, so even the use of “Listen!” to begin a tale gave me a nerdy thrill. (For curious nerds: an article on how we may have misinterpreted the “hwæt!” as “listen!” in Beowulf.) Siobhan’s talent is music composition, not storytelling, so her conversational prose interspersed with dramatic retellings was appropriately awkward until she improved with practice. The use of music to convey a mood was a cool touch, too, though I’m not so good at imagining tunes and therefore felt a stronger connection to the old fashioned use of words. Listen!, indeed.

– The characters. All of them. And their interactions with each other. Siobhan and Owen, thrown together in the high school hallway, forge such a real friendship through tutoring sessions, near-death experiences, and indeed pizza cooked in a blacksmith’s forge. Lottie Thorskgard basically raises her nephew while training him to be a great dragon slayer like she was before her accident. It’s an unusual family, one I totally want to be a part of: Owen, Lottie, her wife Hannah, Aodhan, and Siobhan watching them all from the kitchen table. (There’s a really sweet scene about how happy Lottie and Hannah get whenever he refers to them as his parents.) Another example of good characterization: the teens’ classmates have hidden depths and defy the stereotypical roles they seem to fill at first. One girl decides to take Siobhan under her wing and teach her how to be socially popular, but her motives are much more interesting than one might expect. Then there’s a fun conspiracy nut and his daughter, who don’t give a crap about anyones’ opinions. These all felt like people I could easily meet in real life, if it weren’t for the fact that they kept talking about dragons.

– This isn’t necessarily a comedy, but there was lots of humor in the dialogue and Siobhan’s narration. That’s how I like my epic tales: full of sarcasm and stupid misunderstandings. Nothing lightens the tension of facing off against a creature that wants to eat your car like a well timed joke in a shaking voice.

Things I didn’t like so much:

– The bigger plot, the one about politics and geography and the history of dragons in our world, never really captured my full interest. In school and regular conversation, people learn about Oil Watch, and how industrialization has made the dragon problem even worse, but even though the stakes were high (whole cities get abandoned, and the outcomes of wars have hinged on dragon territories) the tension wasn’t nearly so compelling as the smaller personal story taking place amongst the residents of Trondheim. The characters and conversation were easily enough to keep me entertained while I read, but I didn’t get overly concerned about what might happen next, so this wasn’t one of those books that kept me in its thrall whenever I put it down.

– The dragons themselves weren’t as cool as they could have been. We get to learn about the different types and what makes them fearsome, but they just seemed like a general plague of beasts for the most part. This didn’t detract from the story at all, I just really like my dragons and would have happily witnessed some more prolonged interactions with them.

-There were these historical interludes in which famous badasses from history were entwined with Johnston’s new dragon mythology.  Despite the creativity, these incidents seemed a little gratuitous to me. I see how they could serve to guide the legendary style of Siobhan’s ballad-telling, but I was jarred out of the story whenever I had to stop and puzzle out how figures such as Dracula and Abelard might get re-written as dragon slayers.

Why I’m recommending The Story Of Owen:

– A kind of nerdy main character who is unapologetic about her talents, unsure what she wants from her future, fond of her family, and honest with her friends. Siobhan is a wonderfully real narrator, one who I think lots of teenage readers could like and admire. The other characters are also flawed and good-hearted; you love them even when you want to give them a shake. It would be so excellent if we could all emulate this, if we could remember to embrace our insecurities and admit that we’re still learning.

– Music geekery for all those band nerds who want better imaginary soundtracks to their every day (and epic) battles.

– A friendship between genders that isn’t romantic! (I may get spoiler-y here if you’re the sort of reader who cares deeply about a will-they-won’t-they plotline. But that’s so not the point of this book) Owen and Siobhan are able to look frankly at their relationship, wonder if any feelings are getting in the way, recognize that no there isn’t any sexual turmoil and move on to killing scaly beasts! Will they get together in the future? Who knows or cares! Owen might date one of the many girls who like their men like they like their coffee: wielding a broadsword. (Or am I the only one with that morning routine?) Siobhan might date, or she might be asexual, or she might get burned to a crisp. Whatever. I’m just happy that the lack of teen romantic drama in this book never once took away from the emotional resonance of the characters’ relationships. Friendship, family, and long-standing love can be just as motivating, and it’s about time we saw more of those loves take center stage. When a younger teen expressed trepidation about trying out some older YA because of all the gross romantic subjects, I was very happy to suggest The Story Of Owen.

Even though the plot and draconian action failed to hold me riveted, I liked taking a peep into a dragon-infested world for a while. Siobhan, Owen, Lottie, and all the good people of Trondheim made up such a welcoming community, I could easily understand the Thorskard’s desire to protect them. Centuries and an ocean away from ye olde peasants and great wyrms of yore, the bravery and sacrifice of dragon slayers still remains the stuff of stories. Now they just have to do history homework on the side.

Advertisements

Book Review: You Can’t Win by Jack Black

click for source

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars. This is a memoir.)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

The gents at my favorite coffee shop are on a roll with the book recommendations, lately.  You Can’t Win was described to me as “the memoir of a hobo turned safe-cracker turned house burglar turned highwayman turned librarian.”  You can probably imagine that I nearly dropped my maple spice coffee (yum) in eagerness to get my hands on a copy.  I ordered one the moment I got back to work, and have ordered another since to give as a gift.  It was just that good.  I want to call the book “inspiring,” but it’s probably a bad idea to immortalize one’s admiration for such a practiced criminal as Mr. Black on the internet.  So let’s just call it a riveting story, told with level-headed clarity and enough rollicking anecdotes to turn Jack Black’s life into a series of adventures well worth re-telling.

America in the early 20th century was a wild and crazy place. Saloons and opium dens were everywhere, housing wayward women and desperate men; bad men; or pretty much any other crooked variety of fella. Prisons were uniformly horrifying – even more so than they are today – and reforms had only just started. People still carried gold money on horseback. And security measures for houses and trains weren’t quite up to snuff. The West, especially, was paradise for train-hoppers; hobos; “yeggs”; stick-up men; gamblers… any manner of folk who made their living going against the law.

Jack Black (an alias, I believe) didn’t start out as a criminal. His story begins with a quite loving description of childhood years at a Christian school. Right off the bat, he ruminates on the lack of a mother in his life, though his portrayal of the nuns who took care of him shows that there was no lack of decent adult influence in his upbringing.

“It has often been a question with me just how much the best of it a boy has, who has his mother with him until his feet are well planted under him; who has a home and influences until he gathers some kind of a working philosophy that helps him to face the world… Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about but the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgment in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.”

Jack’s father, too, is described with respect and care. In fact, I was touched by how Mr. Black’s protective nature towards his father’s reputation and feelings only grew throughout his life of crime, which is why it’s not hard to sympathize with the distance he keeps between them in later, more adventurous, years. Even as a kid, his knack for business and shrewd observational skills get Jack into troublesome learning experiences.

“The books so fired me with the desire for travel, adventure, romance, that I was miserable most of the time.”

Well, it won’t be long before travel and adventure fill Jack’s days, though misery is always snapping at his heels. (As for romance… you won’t find much of it in You Can’t Win. One of many reasons I loved the book.) His first arrest is a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subsequent incarcerations are the unhappy results of more purposeful ventures. Jack Black writes candidly about his resilience in crime, neither apologizing for his misdeeds nor whining openly about the hard life of a roving thief.

I was wrong. I knew I was wrong, and yet I persisted. If that is possible of any explanation it is this: From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people. I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. I had lived in an atmosphere of larceny, theft, crime. I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarized, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions. That was the atmosphere I breathed. ‘If you live with wolves, you will learn to howl.”

Black’s unabashed memoirs are told in a fairly linear fashion, though every now and then he’ll mention the untimely demise of a fellow “yegg,” or write ominously about a future mistake as yet unknown to his younger self during the exploit of the moment. Most cases of foreshadowing lead to reciprocal and gratifying anecdotes later on in the narrative. Jack Black is a good writer: trust that he will reveal the conclusions of any and all story-lines that conclude neatly enough.

Characters – real people, yes, but certainly their colorful personalities deserve the term – filter in and out of his acquaintance as fate (or the judiciary system) lead their paths together and astray. From the first time he witnesses a fellow train-hopper get squashed by the cargo, through partnerships with the likes of “Smiler;” “Foot-and-a-Half George;” and “The Sanctimonious Kid,” Jack is a diligent observer of the attitudes that best suit a man on the road. Charming criminals, hardened ladies who orchestrate connections in crime, and even leaders of bloody prison break-outs take Jack into their confidence quickly and easily. I think that his quiet, unassuming nature serves him well in the field. Reading his recollections has made me want to write careful descriptions of the people I encounter: their mannerisms, their ways of speech, and even the measure of their moral standing. You never know when they might turn up in your life again, fifteen years later, harboring a grudge or willing to spring you from behind bars. Bums and highwaymen tend to have interesting backgrounds of their own accord, but it takes a memory like Mr. Black’s and a simple-but-crystallized handle of the English language to give such individuals real life on the printed page.

His voice never falters into sentimentality or veers towards the arrogance of a man who has succeeded where others have not. Sometimes he needs help, and he is grateful when he gets it. Sometimes he has the chance to assist a fellow disreputable soul, and he does so without expecting congratulations. There were runs of bad luck which made me cringe at the injustice of it all – a real life of crime has no guarantee of satisfaction at the end of several months’ plotting, despite what novels and films would have us believe. But there are still moments of triumph and even unexpected kindness to keep his mind in the game for so many years.

The era of saloon shoot-outs, railroad heists, and sacks of gold has dwindled into our less-thrilling modern age of electronic money and biometrics. I probably wouldn’t like to go through my days in a hail of bullets and a succession of jail cells, but it was awfully fun to read Jack Black’s account of such a life. His subdued good humor and unusually merciful view of human nature have rubbed off on me a little bit. If more “good” people adopted an attitude like this one “bad” man, I think we would all have a better idea of how luck and life all even out in the end.

“A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Penitentiaries! I see in the background four of them. County jails, workhouses, city prisons, Mounted Police barracks, dungeons, solitary confinement, bread and water, hanging up, brutal floggings, and murderous straitjacket.

“I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.

“Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another…

“In those twenty-five years I took all these things, and I am going to write about them.

“And I am going to write about them as I took them –with a smile.”

(Here’s another good review of the book, which helped inspire me to buy it sight unseen.)

Book Review: What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

Another realistic, grown-up book set on the Atlantic coast? I guess it was that kind of weekWhat Is Left The Daughter is the final book I read while on vacation.  It was a lovely, bittersweet conclusion to several days of reading and writing by the crashing waves.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot **** (4 stars)

Writing **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 +

Both of Wyatt’s parents died on the same day, when he was seventeen years old.  His mother and his father jumped off of separate bridges in Halifax, unbeknownst to one another, because they were each having an affair with the same woman.  How’s that for the beginning of a fellow’s adult life?  Odder, still: Wyatt’s story only gets more tragic and tangled from there. His parents’ demise takes up barely one chapter, setting up for twenty one years of bittersweetness and unexpected calamity. He look back on it all so calmly, though – so open to irony and wry observances – that the book is nicely devoid of too much self-pity.  The writing is candid, not maudlin.  And whenever Wyatt’s remembered experiences reflect too much pent-up tension, a funny conversation or absurd circumstance reminds us not to take things too seriously.  

This novel is framed as a long letter to his daughter, looking back through the decades to when the action began.  After his parents die, Wyatt moves to live with his Aunt and Uncle in a smaller Nova Scotia town called Middle Economy.  With no particular plans for the future, he agrees to become an apprentice to his Uncle Donald’s trade making sleds and toboggans.  Donald and Constance are raising an adopted daughter, Tilda, who quickly captivates Wyatt’s attention with her “ravishing” beauty and lively charms.  Tilda a strange, likable girl: she wants to be a professional mourner and reads all the obituaries, but she’s also fashionable and charming.  In scenes when other characters stumble through awkward social situations, Tilda shines with conscious good humor.  

Life in 1940s Middle Economy has a gentle rhythm into which Wyatt falls easily enough.  He keeps his love for Tilda secret (she sees him as a cousin despite the lack of shared blood).  He tries hard to please his kind aunt and impress his uncle.  But World War II rages on, bringing a reality of violence to Canadian shores in the form of U-boats, deaths overseas, and a constant threat of spies.  Uncle Donald and others start to fixate on the dangers of German weapons sinking their boats and endangering their waters.

So when a German philology student comes to town and gets close with Tilda, the rhythm of Middle Economy is thrown out of balance. Hans Mohring is no Nazi – he and his family moved away when Germany started to spin out of control – but his accent and his attentions rile up some citizens of Middle Economy.  Uncle Donald shatters all his own beloved Beethoven records in a moment of suspicious anger, to make a point. (Music and trust run in the same metaphors throughout What Is Left The Daughter, illuminating certain characters’ deeper conflicts.)  Some army boys rough up the friendly owner of a Halifax music shop because Hans was teaching him a little German language.  Tilda and Hans eventually move above the local bakery – owned by a delightful local lady who takes no nonsense from any townsfolk – and plan a hurried wedding.  Throughout all this, Wyatt hovers somewhere between friendship and an aching jealousy which bursts out at unfortunate moments.  What was once a peaceful seaside town soon fills with pockets of unease.

And then a boat is sunk.  And then a murder.  And then a split-second decision which will change everything for Wyatt, his family, and the town.  There’s an image which I saw so clearly, I felt like I was standing in the house myself: Tilda sitting at the kitchen table while the song playing skips on the gramophone.  The needle keeps jumping over a bullet hole.  The gun in Tilda’s hand, pointed at her head, is at contrast with her measured voice.  It’s a moment of still clarity in the midst of panic.  It’s the calm before a slow storm of tragedy.  

Things can never go back to the way they were, and the next twenty one years bring Wyatt through changes of circumstance which, eventually, guide him back to his childhood home, where he writes to his daughter.  The second half of the book isn’t quite so vivid and moving as the chapters in Middle Economy, but they’re realistic and still an interesting picture of one man’s altered life in such a charged time period.  Characters resign themselves to unhappiness for a while, then have to look for comfort when it gets too hard.  There are so many heavy hearts in this book and they all need someone to bear the weight now and then, even when injured pride and the messy past would recommend solitude instead.  The war ends, time passes, but Wyatt still has to live with the consequences of his actions.  His letter to Marlais reveals the circumstances of her birth and the nature of her parents’ relationship.  It shows that sometimes fairness means someone has to suffer.

I loved the setting of What Is Left The Daughter, because Nova Scotia is one of my favorite places in the world.  (My last reviewed book, Lobster Kings, also takes place near there.)  I have to admit that I’ve never learned or thought much about Canada during World War II, but the setting and time period were easy to picture and a great stage for this character-driven story.  Little details really made daily life in Middle Economy seem real: the bakery’s cranberry scones, or a crow trapped in the library.  Even Wyatt’s job as a gaffer after he leaves town, years later, inspired little anecdotes which made me interested in a job which had never demanded my interest before.  I definitely preferred the first 2/3 of this novel to the final section, because the pacing was a little better and the characters more captivating, but by the end I thought the story felt nicely rounded out.  

I would recommend What Is Left The Daughter to readers of historical fiction who don’t need everything to be a history lesson, people who like Evelyn Waugh’s more serious novels.  Fans of stories about sad families in small towns, seen through a lens of beauty rather than grit – books like The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – will like the writing in this book.  The plot’s wayward journey will eventually fade like a childhood memory, but little moments between the characters, a line here or a false impression there, will make a lasting impression.