Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris Part I : In The Café Of Lost Youth

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In The Café Of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

When one of my favorite regulars at the Bookshop recently asked me what I’d been reading, the only thing I could think to say was, “Mostly novels about unhappy women being mysterious in Paris.” What a genre! It turns out that there are all sorts of enjoyable books on the subject, and for a week I was stuck on them. Something about the notion of disappearing into a city full of history and art, seedy cafes and “neutral zones,” clearly appeals to morose young women struck by wanderlust. Louki and Grace (from Unbecoming, the next book I will review) feel it as they try to camouflage themselves within the scenery in their novels. And I felt it too, reading from my unseasonably damp corner of New England.

In The Café Of Lost Youth is the first Modiano novel I’ve read, though he blipped onto my radar with his Nobel Prize win in 2014. It’s a short little book, just over a hundred pages, but reading it made me feel like I’ve lived in Paris for years. The novel is broken into four sections, each narrated by a different character, but it all revolves around Louki, “the waiflike figure” who draws their interest like planets circling a sun. Even the section narrated by Louki makes her only more attractively unfathomable. Aside from Louki, In The Café Of Lost Youth also considers the places where the atmosphere broadcasts exactly what part of Paris you are in versus the places where time has no dominion.

“There was a series of transitional zones in Paris, no man’s lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefitted from a certain kind of immunity. I might have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more precise.” (p 83)

These neutral zones could exist anywhere, and it’s easy to see their appeal to people looking to hide out from their pasts. Louki, who makes a habit of disappearing from whatever family life begins to form around her, sort of becomes the patron saint of these places. Roland, who struggles to put his thoughts about these spaces into words, is powerfully moved by their potential, struck by their propensity for the “eternal return”. On the other hand, certain scenes near the Moulin Rouge; on certain hilly streets; or in the cafe where we meet our characters for the first time, are so vivid they could never be neutral for a moment.

I particularly like the first narrator’s description of the Conde; he a shy student entranced by the regulars:

“Along with Le Bouquet and La Pergola, it was one of the cafes in the neighborhood that closed the latest, and the one with the strangest clientele. I often ask myself now that time has passed, if it wasn’t her presence alone that gave this place and these people their strangeness, as if she had impregnated them all with her scent.” (p 7)

I’ve no clue if the characters make the settings in this book, or if the settings amplify the characters, but the sense of place is a fine reflection of both. While the writing occasionally becomes sorrowful, hung up on the unattainable past, Modiano finds the perfect location for every scene and redeems the tone with astonishing details.

After reading, I learned that some of the characters were real people among the political and bohemian set in 1950s Paris. Ed van der Elsken’s photos are a great illustration of the novel’s atmosphere and characters. Not knowing the first thing about the theoretical groups of this time period didn’t stop me from enjoying the abstract conversations and tangled gossip at Condé. Being a chronic cafe-dweller myself, I relished every scene that took place at regulars’ tables or in garish late night public spaces. The novel, especially the first narrator’s chapter, is immensely satisfying for the eavesdropper in all of us.

My one major gripe with In The Café Of Lost Youth has to do with its conclusion. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that there are a few events which seem to befall beguiling, unpredictable young women in novels written by men. It’s gotten to the point that every time a character such as Louki – ethereal, charming, secretive – gets introduced into a male narrator’s story, I hold my breath and hope she won’t be just another chick who does something drastic, teaching dudes that they can never really know a person. Modiano is a tremendous writer and handled Louki’s character very well, I thought, but he does give her one of the plot twists I was dreading just at the end of the story. Does this make since given her character? Sure. But I still think that enigmatic women deserve a few more options at the end of their stories.

In perusing his Wikipedia page, I’ve learned that the majority of Modiano’s novels deal with the reigning themes I detected in The Cafe. Questioning identity, the puzzling permanence of time, the unknowable nature of people, all in a French accent. (A note: Modiano’s Wikipedia page is actually quite interesting to read.) If all of his books send me into a similar stupor of introspective moodiness, I might wait a while before picking up another one. But I felt right at home among the cafe tables and the midnight streets, so the next time I want a mental trip to vintage Paris, I know where to look.

 

 

Book Review: You Can’t Win by Jack Black

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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: Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: This isn’t really YA, but could (and should) be read by teenagers, too.

This book tripped me sideways and tossed me back into the world of vintage SciFi and Fantasy. You know those short-sh books with the weirdly illustrated covers and titles that don’t always correlate with the stories inside? Books like these:

SfFcoversAmong Others is basically a love-letter to that genre, and it made me want to love those books, too. I filled up four notebook pages trying to write down every reference to a book Morwenna Phelps writes in her diary. And I’m sure I missed quite a few. The book-devouring young teenager who narrates Walton’s story through her candid, enthralling journal entries is definitely more well-read in that genre than I am. There was an awful lot to read in the late 1970s! She even gives room-mate Rosie some close competition. Instead of feeling alienated by all the references (and I only got maybe 1/3 of them) I’m newly curious to read more. Books about books are so often marvelous.

Among Others is also a love-letter to libraries. Here’s the dedication:

among others dedication

I liked it so much I had to take a picture

The whole book was a fantastic reminder that we should appreciate the fact that libraries let us read whatever books we want, for free, without judging us or giving us trouble. Librarians want you to read, and they want to get you the books you’re looking for. Could there be anything better in life? As Mori writes,

“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.” (p. 59)

I’ll probably buy Among Others from my bookshop, as I liked it enough to own it, but I’m pleased to have borrowed it from the library for my first reading experience.

Morwenna is half a set of twins, but nobody at the chilly boarding school she’s been shipped to knows that. Her mother was a witch overtaken by the desire for unnatural power, and Mori’s sister Morganna (called Mor) was killed as the girls attempted to stop their mother the previous Autumn. The “accident” that killed Mor crippled Morwenna, and leaves her carrying the weight of Mor’s memory everywhere in life. (The closeness of their names is confusing at first, but also shows how inseparable they were. Mori was defined by Mor, and remains so in her absence.)

In her diary, Mori writes fantastical memories of the sisters running errands for fairies in the ruined factories of their Welsh home. The fairies weren’t the dainty little figures her school-mates would probably imagine. Speaking in twisted phrases; more natural than supernatural; and unreliable at best; the fairies in Aberdare seem to lend their power to whomever knows how to ask for it. So Mori’s mother can manifest evil using the same energy that the young girls could use to destroy factories or protect themselves from harm. Magic works by coincidence, in ways that could almost be explained away by someone who didn’t see what Mori can see. The fairies are a part of the natural order of things, and see how to alter reality with little nudges here and there. Mori and Mor did magic for the fairies without fully understanding it when they were young, and now at Arlinghurst Mori must to find a way to access that power again. As real life obliges to shape itself into what she requests, though, the moral complications of altering the future become worrisome. Can friends you find after magically requesting a “karass” (like those cosmically-linked people in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle) truly like you, or are they obliged by external powers beyond their comprehension? Is it worth it to bear the knowledge that she’s shaped reality for her own means?

“It’s not magic that reaches into the world and changes things. It’s all inside my body. I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world… Fairies are more in the magic than in the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic…. That’s why messing with magic so often becomes evil, because it’s going against that pattern.” (p 294)

Her cunning mother tries to manipulate her from afar, the girls at school do rotten things to newcomers, and the fairies in England don’t even speak Welsh! (On that note, I loved the atmospheric differences between Wales and England. The different settings really made the natural magic more accessible to imagine.) Among Others, for all its references to Sci Fi and Fantasy books with epic journeys and cosmic scopes, is mostly a novel about a girl who turns to fiction for guidance as her life becomes harder and harder to believe. Books save her in multiple ways. So many book-ish characters find purpose through literature and hope in other people’s stories. That’s a common trend in novels that I usually enjoy. But Walton takes that lifeline two steps further, here. During one heart-wrenching scene in which Mori has to confront the mortal barrier between herself and her sister, a fairy friend reminds her that she is “half way.”

“… He didn’t mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17 and if I went on I would never find out how it came out.

There may be stranger reasons for being alive.” (p 89)

I loved Among Others for its unashamedly nerdy main character, and for its glorification of Fantasy as a means to shape young people’s lives. The fairy magic was subtle and fairly organic: enchanted rocks and doorways made of branches instead of big crazy incantations. I’m still unsure what, exactly, Mori’s mother was up to with her manipulative magic and cruel behavior. She rarely appears in the actual narrative, messing with her daughter’s life from afar, instead. This made the book’s climax a little jarring. The magical philosophies could have been developed a little further for my tastes, too, and would have made this into more of a Fantasy book to be read alongside those which Mori’s SF/F book club analyzes so enthusiastically. But since I’m a firm believer that the worlds and actions of fairies should remain inexplicable to human minds, I was happy to go with the flow of how Mori’s understanding of magic grew and changed.

Mori herself grows and changes drastically between September, 1979 and February of 1980. It was a pleasure to read along as she learned how to become her own person, not just a product of her past. Making friends who share her passion and intelligence, forcing herself to admit that there were things she didn’t know, voicing pragmatic quips about the rather silly ways adults can treat handicapped young people: I was constantly delighted by her presence of mind and her emotional integrity. That’s not to say she couldn’t be a bit of a brat or a know-it-all sometimes. But this is her diary, after all. Compared to many of the novels I’ve read in a similar format, Morwenna Phelps’s version of her own story is wonderful to visit for several very happy hours of reading.

Immediately after finishing Among Others I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan to get back into the spirit of things. That review will have to wait for another day, but I think I enjoyed it even better thanks to the praise of Science Fiction that Walton had planted in my head. I doubt I’ll ever make it through the 200-ish books Mori mentions, and that’s ok. The exaltation of all those stories was enough to re-kindle my interest in my own favorites from that genre. (For example, I want to get back into LeGuin, Stewart, and Zelazny. It’s been a while.) My book-ish childhood was very different from Morwenna’s, but I recognize a kindred spirit in how her reading colors her view of the world. I recommend Among Others to adults who remember leading vivid fantasy lives as young people, and to teenagers who are getting passionate about Fantasy and Science Fiction. Morwenna becomes a fast friend of the reader; you will feel like part of her “karass” by the time you read her last diary entry. There’s a certain joy known to lonely children who find solace in literature, and an even greater felicity in reading a book that turns that joy into real magical experiences.

Book Review: Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up. (Drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll.)  Adults will really like this one, too.

I don’t understand old music, or teenage crushes, or Australia. These are not my areas of expertise. But Girl Defective got to me, even though it was about all of those mysterious things. Skylark Martin lives with her little brother Gully (short for Seagull – their mother liked birds) and Bill, her “analogue” Dad (who gets mopey when he drinks), in St. Kilda, where the summer is hot and things aren’t as simple as they seem. A dead girl, a wayward friend, sinister rockstar parties, and two boys looking for very different answers turn St. Kilda into the setting for an understated mystery that can never really be solved.

Sky “used to be such a sweet kid.” I feel bad for each and every teenager who has ever had to react to that loaded statement. She takes care of Gully, who has some social behavior issues and always sports a pig snout on his face to disguise his facial expressions. Gully wants to be a spy, and treats everyone he likes as though they were secret agents. Sky wants to be like her friend Nancy, a wildcard of a girl who is three or four years older and sometimes speaks as though she were living in a black and white movie, then at other times hooks up with famous musicians and looks right through her young friend. Sky wants to be like Nancy, and at times it seems like she might want to be with Nancy, too. And who could blame her? With her magnetic personality and crazy schemes, Nancy’s hard to resist. From the start of Howell’s new-ish YA novel, Sky is torn between the growing need to indulge in some misguided teenage shenanigans and her long standing duty to look after Gully and keep an eye on her dad, too. So when tragi-hot” Luke starts working for her father and plastering some girl’s face all over town, our candid narrator has a lot of trouble deciding what (or whom) she wants, let alone how she would even go about getting it.

Bill Martin owns a record shop that doesn’t get much business, and a great deal of the book’s action takes place amongst the vinyls and cardboard cutouts at the quirky shop. It’s the sort of place you can picture straight away. There used to be one in every major town, and now shops like these are getting rarer and rarer. Simmone Howell writes about Bill’s Wishing Well record shop so lovingly, with an eye for the silly details which make a place special. Since Sky and Gully’s mother left them to go become an experimental pop star in Japan, the record shop is sort of like another parent to them, and maybe the only reliable fixture in their lives. Descriptions of the regular customers were funny and a little sad; very true to life.

A good balance is struck in the retro vibe of Girl Defective. There’s a pleasure taken in remembering the vintage, but the narrator always keeps her head above the waves of nostalgia that keep her dad from really living in the moment. The internet plays a part in their adventures (in fact, a weird party-photo website is one of the creepier and more memorable details in the uncovering of weird circumstances), and most of the characters are able to separate their artistic interests from real life. Those that can not struggle to function in the real world. Gully’s not the only one living in a fantasy, but at least he has Sky to look after him.

As times get tough and the record store is threatened, Sky daydreams about ways to keep it afloat. She’s also started daydreaming about Luke an awful lot, even though he’s an interloper at the store and might keep her from getting the recognition she deserves for all that responsibility. And Mia Casey, Luke’s dead sister, also takes up a lot of space in her brain. The tragic circumstances of Mia’s death don’t sit entirely well with Sky. So while Agent Gully Martin investigates the ne’er-do-wells who through a brick through the shop’s window at the beginning of the book, Sky tries to put together some sort of explanation to ease her own concern. But finding answers is hard for Sky and Luke when Gully needs constant watching, Bill seems to be hiding something big, and unreliable Nancy keeps leading Sky into troublesome situations without helping her friend get back out of them again.

Gully might think he’s a secret agent, but there’s a reason the title doesn’t read “Girl Detective.” Most of the mysteries in this book go unsolved, or have unhappy answers like: people make mistakes and situations can be dangerous. Sky’s quest for Mia Casey is just a distraction, a way to keep her mind occupied. The real story, here, is about how Sky’s perception of her town changes. The dark underbelly of St. Kilda’s doesn’t resemble those Film Noir movies Nancy loves to quote. Nothing is black and white. The sometimes-hilarious and sometimes-distressing interactions between the Martin family and the people Sky meets are where the real plot can be found. I liked how certain characters seem all cool and tough but turn out to be hiding embarrassing depths of immaturity. I also liked how peoples’ reasons for lying, or pretending, or hiding sometimes ended up being entirely understandable. The creepy concerts, secret parties, and gross landlords were enough to keep this story under pressure. Nancy’s caprice and Gully’s eccentricity ensure that Sky’s year will be interesting.

I liked Girl Defective even though it ended without some personal growth instead of swift justice. It’s a good, realistic YA book that could easily be enjoyed by adults. Especially old rockers and people who have convinced themselves that the old days were better. Sky’s internal narration were spot-on for a teenage girl questioning everything she thought was obvious. The other major characters were fun, too, especially the predictably unpredictable ones. Very short chapters and a conversational writing style make Girl Defective the sort of book you can blow through in an afternoon. The plot might be a little slow for teen readers who want their mysteries to be explosive and the drama to be clearly defined, but I ended up enjoying the lifelike mess of experiences Sky goes through in St. Kilda’s. No one’s home town is normal, and nothing really makes sense when you’re just turning sixteen. At least Skylark has got some entertaining company and good tunes to get her through.

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.

 

World Book Night: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Friends, cohorts, everyone-but-my-mortal-enemies, I invite you to celebrate World Book Night with me! By “celebrate World Book Night,” I here mean: I have twenty copies of a really excellent book that I’m giving out for free – do you want one?

 

World Book Night is an annual celebration of books and the joy of reading. On this night, volunteer book-givers wander around with special copies of certain popular books which they hand out for free. The goal is to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be avid readers.

source: wikipedia

April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. (Happy 450th, William. Here, have this book about spies.)

No spare cash to go to the bookstore? Not sure if a certain story is going to be worth your valuable time? Are you waiting for a sign to literally land in your lap, declaring “This is a book you will love and you should read it!” Here’s your sign. I’m handing out a book that I loved – a really fast read with great characters and a thrilling twist – and you don’t have to buy it or remember to return it or anything. Read it, spill coffee on it, lose it in your car somewhere. Whatever. Free books are pretty great, especially when the story’s as good as this one is.

Here’s why I LOVED Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein:

  • Kick-ass girls in WWII: one foul-mouthed and aristocratic Scottish spy, one brilliant and earnest English pilot. Both of them are utterly wonderful, and they’re even better when they’re together.

 

  • Best-friendships are better than romantic relationships. This is a book about two young people trusting one another even when they’re using code-names and flying under blackouts and suffering through Nazi interrogation. There’s no mushy nonsense about star-crossed love or waiting for one’s boyfriend to come home from the war. The fierce friendship between these girls, thrown together in desperate circumstances, is way more powerful than any sentimental entanglements which might happen on the sidelines.

 

  • Inventive story-telling. Code Name Verity begins with one girl’s written memories of how they met and got started in the military. She’s being held prisoner by the Nazis and, under torture and threats, is turning over bits of code and whatever information she can recall, as long as she can have time and paper to write them down. Her confessions take the form of a memoir, with a vivid voice and plenty of anger behind each word. (Also plenty of cursing-out the Nazis, which is well deserved.) But then it switches: after the backstory of their friendship and the drama of military training, the story moves moves forward to a really harrowing denouement. With all the secret missions and coded communications flying around, it’s really interesting to see various angles of the war: from life in England, to the bases, to prisons, to scenes behind enemy lines.

 

  • On that note: Unreliable narrators! Thrilling plot twists! This is the sort of book you’ll want to read a second time, if you haven’t ruined it with your tears or crumpled pages in suspense. There are false leads and hidden messages, double-agents double-crossing each other, cunning misdirections, and secrets everywhere. This is a spy novel, after all. The plot isn’t particularly complicated or difficult to follow – I get easily confused/frustrated by war thrillers but found Code Name Verity to be an easy read. It’s just that once you see how everything comes together in the end you’ll want to go through and see all the clever details working in action.

 

  • A complete story. ‘Cause I, for one, am damned tired of extended YA series. There’s technically a companion novel to Code Name Verity called Rose Under Fire, but this is a book you can read on its own. No slamming the covers shut in frustration after an enormous cliff-hanger ending. No trilogy set-up just to make as much money as possible. The book is exciting and upsetting and a fantastic piece of literature unto itself. So no worries even if you’re a slow reader or are reluctant to get into a book. This one will grab your attention and not leave you feeling cheated at the end.

Who will enjoy Code Name Verity?

  • Anyone who wonders if they’d have the courage to sacrifice their comfortable lives for scary, lonely missions in dangerous locations. (After reading the book, I don’t think I would.)
  • Anyone who has a best friend and knows how that bond can be stronger than patriotism or romance or fear.
  • Anyone who can appreciate a war story focused on the individuals involved as well as the bigger picture. The book features Englishmen, Scots, French resistance fighters, farmers, Nazi interrogators, turncoats, American radio presenters, nameless government officers, and a passel of tiny Glaswegian evacuees who made me laugh when I thought I would be holding my breath forever. You love some characters and despise some others, and then realize near the end that nearly everyone has a side you didn’t see. War turns everyone into an enigma, and this book gets that exactly right.
  • And anyone who likes the idea of young people flying planes, parachuting into war zones, sassing their interrogators, and cracking codes, all the while managing to find something hopeful in their surroundings and comrades. Basically, anyone who looks for something to hold on to in the worst of times.

So, do you want to read Code Name Verity? Do you live within a reasonable distance from me? Get in touch and I’ll try to get it to you tonight. I promise it’s good, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the story and the characters. Anyway, it’s free. The worst that can happen is you might stay up a little too late, desperate to know what fate has in store for the heroines. Just know that while fate can be cruel and war always sucks, there are always brave people to celebrate. And I haven’t read about braver characters in a very long time.

Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin is part of the “Fairy Tale Series” created by Terri Windling.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 + (Mostly because the academic subject matter might be boring to many younger readers, not due to any particular graphic unpleasantness.)

I was so excited to finally read this book. It’s been on my shelf for so long, but I forced myself to wait until spring to start reading. Tam Lin is my favorite legend of all time (I guess it’s technically a ballad), and the story has inspired a whole bunch of really excellent novels and re-tellings. Was Pamela Dean’s version of the story worth the anticipation? Not entirely.

I know several different versions of the song, but they all follow the same general theme, which I have summarized here, for anyone who doesn’t know it. I discussed the characters and themes of the original ballads in a separate post from this one, because I already had way too much to say about this one book. Read that first if you aren’t familiar with the legend.  (Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings)

"Tam Lin - The Faery Host" by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

“Tam Lin – The Faery Host” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

 

In Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, the ballad’s general theme and storyline has been brought to a college campus in the 1970s. Janet starts her undergraduate studies, and she quickly makes friends with an arcane group of fellow students. The three boys she and her room-mates start to date, and the boys’ acquaintances, behave in a fashion which might be mysteriously esoteric and might just be pretentiously self-impressed. They are college freshmen and theatrical types, after all. In the midst of academic over-ambition; qualms about birth control; and relationship issues, Janet’s started to notice that things aren’t quite normal on campus. The Classics department has a habit of riding horses through the woods every Hallowe’en night to the sound of bagpipes. Nick, Robin, and Thomas are more comfortable arguing over Elizabethan plays than they are going on dates or discussing modern novels. The rumored ghost in Janet’s dorm building has been throwing books out the window, unless it’s someone playing a prank no one can quite understand. The boys are strangely beholden to one Professor Medeous, who is head of Classics – brilliant and manipulative – and a complete mystery. As Janet tries to puzzle over the anomalies on campus, she uncovers clues to a much older and more dangerous cycle of events which seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Her friends’ lives may be in danger, but to help them she’ll need to work out what happened at Blackstock in the previous century. On top of that serious mission, she’s got essays to write and Shakespeare to study!

The book is a long one. It describes Janet’s entire time at Blackstock college; four years of and then she took a class about poetry, and, the five of them sat around discussing Ancient Greek for a solid hour in the dining hall. (These are not direct quotes, because the real descriptions of class schedules and homework assignments sometimes feel like they go on for many pages.) Tam Lin is obviously, and unashamedly, an extensive love-letter to Pamela Dean’s college experience. I didn’t always see the point in the heavy focus on campus life, but I will say that her descriptions did make me feel as though I were right there with Janet in her dorm room, or puzzling over some text in the library, or taking the long way to the bridge to meet some troublesome lad. The thing is, I don’t think the fairy-tale elements of this novel quite justified the hundreds of pages about campus life. It was just too imbalanced for me.

To clarify: Pamela Dean obviously knows her ballads and legends like an absolute wizard. There are several subtle references to medieval British folklore sprinkled throughout the otherwise-mundane chapters of the novel. From the wreaths of symbolic flowers on Janet’s mysterious academic advisor’s door, to the prevalence of green clothing whenever something faintly magical gets suggested, I was always happy to notice a little nod to the old stories which the novel meant to emulate. There are probably a hundred references which I wasn’t sharp enough to catch, too, because in the game of How Many Obscure Literary/Academic/Classical References Can We Hide In One Text?, Tam Lin rivals T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. (Janet even first meets Nick over a shared love of that poem, and that just sets the stage for a bazillion other oh aren’t we a clever crew moments.) But unless you’re easily satisfied with minor hints of fairy activity, these occasional moments of mystical intrigue won’t be enough to keep you entirely engaged. The most otherworldly and exciting scenes took place whenever Janet and her friends went ghost hunting, or exploring at night to chase down the sound of bagpipes and spy on the Hallowe’en hunt. Alas, the unusual events they witness don’t nudge the plot into any truly spooky atmosphere.

It’s not until the book’s final hundred pages that the vague hints and scattered references draw together for a supernatural showdown. By that point, the story’s momentum is too bogged down in tedious information, and the action seemed to come from nowhere. A great many threads and plot lines get pulled into the novel: fairy-tale; ghost story; campus drama; literary tribute; coming-of-age story, but none of these aspects gets developed enough. Instead, we have to slog through too many pages of self-indulgent cleverness to get to the legend at the story’s heart. It’s all well and good for the story to be anchored in a fresh, modern setting – those re-tellings are usually my favorites – but if the readers get bored of homework and gratuitous scholarly musings before they even reach the story’s fantasy elements, they could miss the magical moments all together.

When adapting a folktale or legend, it’s really important that the characters retain the qualities which make them so memorable. In this case, Janet (or whomever her counterpart may be) needs to start out obstinate and entitled, but she should turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by the time she faces the Fairy Queen. Dean’s Janet starts out unbearably smug and never gets much better. She does improve a little, recognizing her faults and follies over the course of four years, but she doesn’t change enough to make us truly root for her. The ballad itself isn’t always terribly long, but in five minutes of singing the character of Janet can undergo a better transformation than she did in all four hundred pages of this novel. Also, for someone who wants to research and understand everything (Janet’s like a Hermione who never stops being a know-it-all), she manages to completely overlook all the signs that Fairyland might be at work in her University. Time traveling crosses her mind, and she’s happily inquisitive about ghosts, so it’s a little hard to believe that she’d never heard Fairport Convention’s version of the song, which had been popular only a few years before the story starts. In fairness to our heroine, Dean does make use of the fairy magic confuses mortals trick, and while this slows the plot to a snail’s pace it does, at least, fit nicely with the genre. Janet’s good qualities – her inquisitive nature, her steadfast determination, and her wits – were completely over-shadowed, for me, by her constant need to be the smartest person in the room and the slight brattishness which never really turns into bravery.

Thomas –the Tam Lin of this version – is actually a fairly good character, both in his own right and in conjunction with the ballad. He doesn’t exactly stand around guarding a forest all day, but the mortal trapped by fairies vibe is right on target once the plot finally gets to work. He can’t seem to graduate, distrusts his friends, and has trouble saying what he means. Dean describes his despair and his enthrallment very well. Thomas’s scenes gave me hope that the parallels between the novel’s namesake and the events unfolding would get clearer. Unfortunately, they did not.

In my opinion, the Fairy Queen should be the coolest character in the story. In the ballads, her scene is my absolute favorite. She can start out as a complete mystery, as the stunning but volatile Classics professor does in the novel, but she absolutely must have a strong personality and embody the traits which are inherent to the legacy of her character. I tend to judge re-tellings by their Fairy Queen, and this one fell disastrously short on that account. We very rarely see the Fairy Queen figure, so her role in the story is largely sustained by other characters’ conversations about her. I know that’s how we learn about her in the ballad, too, but two lines in the song manage to convey an aura of power and dread more distinctly than all the prose-y conversations in this book. Maybe the stakes just weren’t high enough, or the action built up far too quickly out of nothing to create the necessary aura of unearthly menace. Even when delivering my favorite lines, it felt like the character was simply reciting from a hasty script. There is always a scripted nature to any re-telling – a formula the author chooses to follow to a certain degree – but since Pamela Dean ignored most of that formula until the end, when it took over the plot rather too conveniently, I see no reason why the Queen couldn’t have been suitably impressive.

Most minor characters were fairly realistic and reasonably likable, but it just felt like I was eavesdropping on some overzealous undergraduates in a Harvard Square cafe. Janet’s family is delightful – (what a relief, since I really like the kind father part of the ballad) – and her scenes at home do manage to provide her character with some redeeming qualities. The twist at the end makes up for some muddled personalities, keeping in mind that we see everything from Janet’s point-of-view so when she’s confused, we’re confused. The characters who had some connection to the ghost were far more intriguing than those with fey-like qualities, but that’s the opposite of what I’d prefer. Fairyland’s denizens can be inscrutable puzzles and still keep the reader enthralled, but the eldritch members of Blackwood’s faculty and students just seemed wooden and shallow. I didn’t care enough about any of them besides Thomas and, sometimes, his friends.

Maybe my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. I would love to know how the book feels to someone who wasn’t in love with the original ballad before they started reading. As a coming-of-age campus novel and nothing more, Tam Lin would still have issues with pacing and character development. But the descriptions of college life in the 1970s – the issues of sexual awakening, scholarly ambitions, and young people on their own for the first time – could possibly interest some readers enough to justify the imbalance between so many mundane details and the underdeveloped supernatural elements. Terri Windling’s introduction and especially the Author’s Note at the end of the book do provide some explanations about the story’s peculiar direction, and I appreciated Dean’s choices a little more after learning what inspired her. Anyone who tries the novel should make sure to read those, as well. These notes won’t entirely excuse the bad pacing and unlikable characters, but they do provide some context and several interesting observations about the ballad itself.

Tam Lin wasn’t a terrible book, despite all my complaints. I did read all the way to the end, and the subtle mysteries building around Blackstock were interesting enough that I cared to find out what Janet would discover. I liked solving bits of the puzzle before she did – recognizing symbols from the ballad – and I liked the twist at the end. Ultimately, though, I spent most of my time reading the book white-knuckled from frustration rather than suspense. There are better books out there which have covered the two main styles of Tam Lin. If you want a thoughtful; twisting; incredibly well-researched modern adaption of the ballad, read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. That’s got a billion and twelve folklore references in it, too, but both the magic and the real world are far more intriguing. For anyone after a twisted and highbrow story of undergrad Classics students in way over their heads, read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tam Lin is a heavy-handed combination of the two genres, and while I would recommend it to devout fans of either genre and/or the 1970s, the novel just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its title.

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

source: goodreads

I often wonder if I’m in danger of becoming a fairy-tale villain. I don’t like little children. I’m greedy, I’m selfish, and I occasionally think about cursing people into small amphibians or enchanted sleeps. Like Boy, the main character in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, I spend an awful lot of my time looking in mirrors. It was fascinating to watch Boy’s progression from abused daughter to possibly evil stepmother, especially since it’s easy to see how we might follow the same path if we were in her place.

It’s 1953 and Boy Novak has run away from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York City.  She chooses to make her home in a Massachusetts town peopled by skilled craftsmen despite her lack of any artistic occupation. The magazine quizzes tell Boy that she might be frigid, and there are times when mirrors seem to enchant her while she sees truer reflections of herself walking across the street, invisible to everyone else. It takes Boy a little while to get her bearings, though she’d never admit this to the characters who try to befriend her, but eventually she puts a past love behind her and marries a teacher-turned-jeweler; a widower with a stunning little daughter whom Boy can never quite figure out. “[Snow] was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.” (p 71) Just as Boy starts to grow comfortable in Flax Hill with Arturo’s family the Whitmans (that’s right: Snow Whitman and her stepmother…) she gives birth to a little girl of her own. Snow is the one to suggest the name Bird, and Bird grows into an inquisitive and lively young teenager who does the name justice. Bird also comes out brown skinned, which exposes the Whitmans as having Black ancestry in the not so distant genetic past. They might live in a fairly accepting Northern town, but this is still 1950s America, so everyone is pretty shocked when Boy chooses to send Snow away to stay with Arturo’s estranged sister and her more obviously  Black husband instead of Bird. Thus begins Boy’s transformation into something of an evil stepmother, something of a protective mother despite the cultural obstacles, and something of a confused fairy tale heroine in her own right. As family secrets get tangled into legend or pulled out into the open, a realistic portrayal of self preservation versus difficult truths mixes with the stuff of bedtime stories to create a touching and clever novel which enthralled me completely.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of re-told fairy tales. I like stories which are fairly obvious in their parallels and I also like mostly-original novels which follow an understated pattern of fairy tale logic and contain hidden references along the way. Oyeyemi has borrowed the fairest-of-them-all conflict, the child-sent-away plot catalyst, and the magical qualities of names for her novel. She has sprinkled her tale of new beginnings and re-shaped families with references to “Snow White,” most obviously, but also a whole library of other myths and legends.

That being said, Boy, Snow, Bird is not really a fantasy novel. I mean, there are no dwarves and no magic apples, but there’s also no concrete suggestion that all this talk about curses or fate might be truly serious. Maybe the fact that all three title characters don’t show up in mirrors, sometimes, should be read as pure metaphor. Maybe Boy Novak runs away from her vicious father with the grim profession to a secluded town just because the time is right, and not because she’s following the well-trodden path of all those girls who struck out, cursed, for unknown lands in the storied traditions before her. Maybe Bird can’t really talk to spiders. Maybe the mystical powers girls like Snow and Sidonie hold over boys – regardless of race in such a racially aware time – comes from something within them that isn’t so much magical as genetic or psychological. Who knows? All I know is that Helen Oyeyemi did a marvelous job integrating some of my favorite themes and traditions into her writing. Every few pages, I have passages underlined in pencil or sticky notes pointing out of my copy of the book, marking my favorite references both obvious and minute. I bet there are plenty I’ve missed, too. There were connections with the German and English tales we’re all quite used to, but also some references to the Black American legends of John the Conqueror and the more Romantic poem Goblin Market; mixed allusions are hidden all over the place and I wanted to high-five Oyeyemi from afar every time I noticed one of my favorite obscure little legends.

Aside from the layer of magical motifs which embellished Boy, Snow, Bird, there were several other aspects which rather enchanted me. Yes, the characters were memorable – though I thought that the male characters were distinctly less developed than the vivid female ones – and the setting made a nice stage for the volatile time period in which the story takes place. (It was pretty odd to read about a fictional New England town which was meant to be less than an hour away from mine. Every time the characters went to Worcester I couldn’t help but picture the streets and restaurants I’ve personally encountered.) But it was the way that certain characters interacted with each other and learned to distrust their first, second, third impressions which really caught my attention. When Bird gets work as a coat check girl on a party cruise simply because she’s got blonde hair – the 1950s were absurd – and strikes up a friendship with Mia, who masquerades as a blonde to write an article about the whole shindig, there’s a bit of foreshadowing there for the bigger disguises which will reveal themselves in time.  All clever plotting aside, it was entertaining to watch their friendship develop, and to see how Mia’s doggedly inquisitive personality rubbed against Boy’s challenging one. The bookshop owner who later employs Boy is an ornery old English lady who turns out to be full of little surprises, not the least of which being her patience and understanding to the three precocious young black children who spend their afternoons reading at the shop instead of going to school.  Since Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel which focuses on race, I was glad to see these kids through the eyes of a lady who has absolutely no time for racist nonsense. Think Aunt Eleanor from Inkheart, dispensing thoughtful advice about theoretical curses rather than facing down real magical villains. The supporting cast of ladies, including those who had ugly pieces of their souls hidden away, were as carefully characterized as they were diverse. I didn’t really mind the fact that Boy’s husband and the other menfolk weren’t so interesting. They just seemed more realistic, less complex, a little drab; and maybe that’s part of what made the book seem to follow Anderson’s and the Grimms’ formulas. The honest woodcutters (or jeweler, in this case) and the kingly fathers rarely have any clue what’s going on under their noble, hardworking noses. It’s the women and children who notice the threats in nature and in their own reflections.

My favorite interaction to witness was probably the correspondence between the nearly grown up Snow and her half-sister Bird in the middle section of the book, which was told from Bird’s perspective. We get such a romanticized picture of Snow from Boy’s chapters – not always in a good way – that it’s hard to see her as a real person for the first half of the narrative. But she finally gets to have a bit of her own voice in the letters she exchanges with Bird, who doesn’t have any set opinion of this beautiful but incomprehensible girl just yet. “I don’t think Mother Nature likes us much,” Snow writes to her sister once they finally make contact. “If she did, she wouldn’t make the things that are deadliest so beautiful.” (p 230) It’s observations like that one which turn Snow into more than just a beautiful concept against which other characters can hurl their dreams and prejudices and insecurities. For all that Boy finds herself at internal odds with her stepdaughter once her own daughter is born, this is an observation which sounds like it could have come straight out of Boy’s head.

The conflicted stepmother and the fairest of them all aren’t so different, and in the end I read every one of their own encounters with my breath held a little, waiting to see if there would be violence, or tears, or retribution, or forgiveness. This book isn’t a fairy tale, it just shows us a picture of diverse life half a century ago through the window of the folklore we recognize, so no one falls asleep after eating a poisoned apple. The forgiveness and acceptance we seek while reading Boy, Snow, Bird does come to pass in the end, up to a point. But it’s a fraught road to get there, and you can’t be quite certain that things won’t soon tumble back into the deceptive, treacherous world of hidden identities and quiet manipulations. I’m choosing to hope that there might be a happy ending for Boy, Snow, and Bird, though, because I grew attached to all three of them. Even if true happiness isn’t an option, I closed the book wishing that they might survive whatever harrowing journey through the woods they three had embarked upon together.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Book Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-13

We have a stack of Rooftoppers on display at my bookshop right now, and I will admit that I was enamored with this new-to-America children’s book even before I read it.  The cover is beautiful and subdued; an old fashioned design which won’t look out of place tucked alongside classics like The Golden Compass and The Graveyard BookRooftoppers has a charming narrative voice which calls to mind some of my favorite children’s books like Inkheart and Peter Pan, alongside a timeless setting for secretive adventures similar to The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

While it shares some excellent qualities with each of these books, though, Rundell’s writing has a unique style all her own.  She chooses her words carefully but includes enough warmth and wit in all of her dialogue and descriptions to keep us smiling at her dreamy view of the world.  I say “dreamy” there simply because I’m not poetic enough this morning to capture the right words to describe the mood of Rooftoppers. It is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted to read sitting in the cold moonlight after everyone had gone to bed when I was nine or ten years old.  There’s beautiful imagery, international travel, clever conversations, and intrepid children having adventures in a word all their own.

The story starts with a baby getting rescued from the a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case by an awkward but kindhearted scholar.  From the second page, we get a reassuring peek into the nature of the relationship between rescuer and cello-baby: “It is a scholar’s job to notice things.  He noticed that it was a girl, with hair the color of lightning, and the smile of a shy person.”  Charles raises Sophie on his own, and she grows up happily in his curious house eating cake off books (she has a tendency to break plates), reading Shakespeare, and ignoring the tangles in her hair.  Sophie refuses to give up hope that her mother still lives, and a phrase which she and Charles share with each other on numerous seemingly-hopeless occasions is “never ignore a possible.”  The family they make is happy but unconventional and so, as it often happens in books about blissfully un-brushed and precocious children, the dubiously omniscient “state” decides to meddle.  The unfeeling Ms. Eliot, a rigid woman from the National Childcare Agency who is described as often speaking in italics, decides that Charles is unfit to raise Sophie.  It seems he knows so little about bringing up girls he has scandalously allowed her to wear a shirt which buttons on the right like a man’s, as well as a slew of other frustratingly closed-minded grievances.

In defiance of their orders to be separated from one another, Charles and Sophie risk everything to escape England with high spirits in the face of adventure.  They follow a clue found in Sophie’s old floating cello case to a music shop in Paris, and decide to try and find her mother while they wait to be left in peace.  One thread of the plot which puzzled me a little was the selflessness of Charles as he helps the child he raised go searching for a mother she had never met, but between his devotion to her happiness and the unlikely odds that the woman is even alive, I could easily shelve my cynical expectations.  In Paris, Charles and Sophie have to match wits with shifty police officers and obnoxious legal waffling.  Sick of hiding in her hotel room all day, Sophie climbs up to the roof, only to discover that the rooftops of Paris are home to groups of children living free from the rules of the streets below.  She strikes up a friendship with Matteo, an orphan who vows never to go down into the streets again, and some of his friends and learns that thrill and freedom of a life above city could provide her not only with a measure of safety from the authorities but also, if she’s very lucky; very careful; and very brave; a path to her long lost mother.

I know that the books to which I compared Rooftoppers were mostly stories with some fantasy elements, but this novel is actually not a fantasy at all.  I hesitate to call it “realism,” since the historical setting is rather vague to allow for the traditional elements of a Nineteenth Century children’s adventure, but there’s no magic other than luck, hope, and powerful music.  Many of the characters also bear descriptions which imbue them with almost fairy-tale qualities: for example, Charles “had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.”  Because the characters tend to see each other as wondrous beings, there’s no real need for dragons or spells.

It was an absolute pleasure to read about Sophie and Charles as they looked out for one another, and I was easily convinced by Matteo and his hardscrabble friends that the unconstrained world above ground is the best sort of freedom a child could imagine.  The characters in Rooftoppers were determined, resourceful, and hopeful even in the face of devastating disappointment.  If Rundell had been less skilled in her creation of a storybook atmosphere, I think I might have found some of the characters and events a little too good to be true.  Luckily, she writes so beautifully that even where the plot failed to surprise me it still managed to be delightful.

The tension in Rooftoppers sems mostly from the risk of characters losing one another, which is sweet and meaningful but means that readers who are easily frightened won’t find themselves haunted by the terrifying situations which are so plentiful in other Middle Grade novels.  (I loved me some terror when I was of that age, but I understand that some parents would rather not be woken to the sound of screams after their kid stays up too late reading.)  There’s a little bit of violence, but it’s more reminiscent of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan than any true evil.  The end was bittersweet and a little abrupt, but I was extremely relieved to see that there was no cliffhanger paving the way for a sequel.  Rooftoppers can stand alone as a charming book to read on a dark night, particularly if the power’s out and you’ve got a warm fire, and you’ll be thinking about Sophie, Charles, and the shadowy children against the sky long after their adventures are through.

I haven’t been so entranced by the rooftops of Paris since I went through a phase in  Elementary School in which I watched The Hunchback Of Notre Dame every afternoon.   I imagine that sensitive children with mysterious spirits, and grown-ups who miss the atmospheric stories which stuck with them throughout the years, will enjoy Rooftoppers.  It leaves you with your head in the clouds and your heart in your throat.