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Remember when I was complaining about vampire and werewolf fatigue? Well, the little buggers are everywhere and caught me unaware in The Graveyard Book. Still, I don’t regret it. Unlike other supernatural novels I’ve read recently, and even thought this is somewhere between children’s and YA, it had some seriously creepy moments. The scene of Bod is in his cradle listening to Jack going through the house gave me goose-bumps.

I’m probably one of the only fantasy fans out there who has never read The Graveyard Book, so I’ll just say that it’s about a 2-year-old orphan boy who’s adopted by the ghosts and other creatures of an old graveyard. The story has just the right amount of the eerie, the funny, the touching and the adventurous. To pack so much is such a small book and at the same time make it so unpretentious (almost modest) says a lot about Gaiman’s abilities.

It also achieves that most elusive goal of being a children’s book with a moral that’s not force-fed down our throats.

It’s not exactly a coming of age book, but every chapter works like an episode of Bod’s life that will mold him into what he’ll become. It left me with the same bitter-sweet feeling I get with stories about kids making their way into the world and parents coming to terms with it, hoping the tools they gave them will be enough.

Dear Mr. Gaiman, can we have a book just about Bod’s guardian, Silas?

This was only my second Gaiman, and the first one written by him alone. What should I go for next? American Gods? Anansi Boys?

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Winner of the Newbery Award in 1958, it’s incredible how often you see people still referring to it, mostly to admit to a childhood crush on Nat 🙂

This is the story of Kit Tyler, who in 1687 leaves her home in Barbados, to live with her aunt and uncle in Puritanical Connecticut. Kit was raised by her grandfather in a far from conventional way (she knows how to swim, and – the horror! – she’s read Shakespeare!). The story starts when Kit’s already on the boat towards America (where she meets the aforementioned Nat, the captain’s son) and follows her efforts to adapt to her new family and way of life, in a community who doesn’t respond well to Difference.

It’s an intelligent and tongue-in-cheek read, an ode to acceptance. It’s a very short novel, but still manages to successfully cram a lot into it: growing up, friendship, romance and loss. Through the background descriptions, you still find out about life in America at the time, its justice system, religious and social events, women’s domestic life, how a house was built or how food was preserved. All in a gently flowing pace.

In recent years I’ve been reading what I would have read had I been born in Britain or America. Sometimes it works and I can feel the magic, but once in a while the stories pale when I see through adult eyes. The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a good experience, one to add to the likes of Winnie the Pooh, The Railway Children and Anne of Green Gables.

The Grand Tour: Being a Revelation of Matters of High Confidentiality and Greatest Importance, Including Extracts from the Intimate Diary of a Noblewoman and the Sworn Testimony of a Lady of Quality by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Sequel to “Sorcery and Cecilia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot”, it once again follows the adventures of two cousins in a Regency world where everything is normal, except there’s Magic. Cecy and Kate are now married and decide to go on a group honeymoon tour of Europe, but of course they end-up on a race against time to save Europe from doom.

I wasn’t sure about the epistolary format. It made sense in the first book because the cousins were apart and telling each other their separate stories, enriching the narrative with comments and advice. (The two authors actually wrote Sorcery and Cecelia as a “Letter Game” – they built their world together, but individually made up a character and started corresponding with each other). But this time around they’re living the same adventures, only one writing a diary and other a statement. It felt awkward.

Also, I’m afraid the authors are not quite there yet with the different voices – take out the heading and I would have difficulty is knowing who’s who, which is weird when we’re talking about two people actually co-writing the book…

It’s not as fun as “Sorcery and Cecilia”, and if you don’t know anything about the Regency era it’s not here you’ll start learning, but it’s light reading, good for when you’re stranded in the airport the days before Christmas…

I’m disappointed that so many of my last novels of 2010 we so… 3 out of 5. Two of them:

Prince Caspian
The Narnia series are books I wish I’d read when I was 12, because now I can’t seem to enjoy them as much as everyone else does. Or at least I don’t have the special memories everyone reserves for books they loved but have outgrown (in my case, e.g. The Malory Towers).

As in the early Narnia books, I find myself resisting the Christian metaphors. In Prince Caspian it was especially difficult to suspend my cynicism because I’ve serious issues with blind faith and the whole “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. Many deaths could have been avoided if Aslan had decided to intervene earlier, but he decided he’d only come once… what? All Narnians believed he existed and were ready to apologize? Once everyone was ready to die? “Things never happen the same way twice” seemed a weak excuse. And didn’t you also get the feeling that in the end Peter and Susan were being punished for not believing?

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the feeling of gentle nostalgia surrounding the story. Returning to a beloved place that has changed forever and the realization that things do move on without you is a powerful lesson when you’re a kid. Those scenes where the four explore the ruins of Cair Paravel were great, and Lewis must have found them of particularly important because they take almost 1/3 of the story.

In the end I agree with the general opinion that C. S. Lewis is a great writer, and I’m still keen on ready the next in the series, even if it’s just to have my share in the conversation 😛

The Winter King: a Novel of Arthur (The Warlord Chronicles #1)
I get extremely frustrated with books told from the POV of undiscerning or extremely naïve characters (or worst: characters we’re told are smart but somehow never show it).

I’ve been finding that Arthurian and fantasy novels are particularly prone to this affliction (others I can think of now: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart and Magician by Raymond E. Feist). The Winter King, no matter what the subtitle says, is not a novel of Arthur, but a novel of Derfel, the warrior-come-monk who is telling the tale. He doesn’t even spend that much time with Arthur, so what you get are second-hand accounts of the really important stuff or interpretations made by a character that’s not that politically astute (or interesting).

I could see where Bernard Cornwell was going with The Winter King: a “realistic” approach to the Arthurian legend that underlines that Britain in those days was far from chivalrous. But I felt he created realism at the cost of characterization. Artur is painted as a people’s person but at times is unbelievable blind towards the faults of others and women are either men-haters, mentally insane, coldly ambitious, beautiful serene virgins, or a combination of these.

I also got a bit confused with the realistic approach to religion and magic. From the start Cornwell hints that Pagans and early Christians alike are charlatans, but then tries to build tension around the rituals and prophesies. We see how a Priestess conned a mighty King, or how all the protection spells Merlin put around his rooms are mere show, but then we’re asked to believe in the magical bond between Derfel and priestess Numue and Merlin’s Great Quest.

Do you have any recommendation for good Arthurian novels?

I was already 30 pages in when I realized I’d already read “Eight Cousins”, many, many moons ago. I vividly remember two scenes in particular, but in my mind they became part of “A Little Princess” (I confused my orphans…): the scene where Uncle Alec creates placebo pills from brown bread, and him puting together Rose’s room, full of exotic objects from his travels. Why these two in a book full of other events? No idea.

“Eight Cousins” is about Rose Campbell, a 13-year-old who shortly after becoming an orphan is put under the guardianship of  her Uncle Alec. He’s a doctor and temporarily away at sea, so until he returns Rose goes to live in “Aunt Hill”, the home of many aunts, great-aunts and seven male cousins. When we first meet her, Rose is a treated by the Aunts as the frail and delicate creature every Victorian young woman should be. However, when Uncle Alec comes back, he begins a long process towards a happier and healthier Rose, using very unorthodox methods (he was ready to burn her corset!).

The story is pure Alcott in it’s gentleness and focus on strong messages for young people, but it felt rather more outdated than “Little Women” and its sequels. In those famous works, she seem to be writting for both adults and children, but this one comes across as more infantile. The moralizing and sentimentality in “Eight Cousins” (full of “little dears” that go to “little beds”, with a “little cups of broth”) became too much Tell and not enough Show. Here’s when the best Aunt tries to dissuade her sons from reading “popular stories”:

 “A boot-black mustn’t use good grammar, and a newsboy must swear a little, or he wouldn’t be natural,” explained Geordie, both boys ready to fight gallantly for their favourites.

“But my sons are neither boot-blacks nor newsboys, and I object to hearing them use such words as ‘screamer,’ ‘bully,’ and ‘buster.’ In fact, I fail to see the advantage of writing books about such people unless it is done in a very different way. I cannot think they will help to refine the ragamuffins if they read them, and I’m sure they can do no good to the better class of boys, who through these books are introduced to police courts, counterfeiters’ dens, gambling houses, drinking saloons, and all sorts of low life.”

Still, Uncle Alec’s theories about what a young girl should eat, dress and be taught was radical for its time, and still refreshing noew. He forbade corsets and tight belts, he recommended lots of fresh air and exercise, and defended that every girl should be educated on how to handle her financial affairs and (this was surprising!) how her body works.

“Do you think that is a good sort of thing for her to be poking over? She is a nervous child, and I’m afraid it will be bad for her,” said Aunt Myra, watching Rose as she counted vertebrae, and waggled a hip-joint in its socket with an inquiring expression.

“An excellent study, for she enjoys it, and I mean to teach her how to manage her nerves so that they won’t be a curse to her, as many a woman’s become through ignorance or want of thought. To make a mystery or terror of these things is a mistake, and I mean Rose shall understand and respect her body so well that she won’t dare to trifle with it as most women do.”

I’ve added “Rose in Bloom”, the sequel to “Eight Cousins” to the wishlist.

Since I started blogging I haven’t see a review of any of the books in “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. Doesn’t anyone read them or am I behind the bandwagon again?

I’m not completely and utterly in love with the series and they do become a bit repetitive after a while, but they’re 1) still entertaining, 2) a fast read, 3) I love the illustrations and binding, 4) I want to know how it ends and 5) I enjoy all the literary references.

In The Ersatz Elevator, the Baudelaires’s guardians are Jerome and Esmé Squalor. Esmé is the city’s 6th most important financial adviser and so incredibly wacky she became one of my favorite villains in the Series: she’s obsessed with what’s “in” and “out”. For instance, the children have to climb 66 floors to get to the Squalor’s apartment because elevators are out, but on the other hand, pinstripe suits and ocean decorations are in.

Although Jerome was kind to the children, he turns out to be yet another negligent guardian. Why are all adults in the Series either villains or fools? Maybe that’s why The Reptile Room is still my favorite book so far – Uncle Monty rocked (and I liked him the movie as well)!

As the story of the orphans progresses, my curiosity increases over the pieces of information Lemony Snicket drops about himself. I love how sometimes he’s telling the story and all of a sudden he says something like, “and this reminds me of the time I was in prison for biting a dog”. I hope in the end we find out more about him and his dear dead Beatrice (For Beatrice- You will always be in my heart,/In my mind,/And in your grave.).

No matter how predictable each book is, one deliverable you can rely on: funny quotes full of bitter truths :):

There are many, many things that are difficult in this life, but one thing that isn’t difficult at all is figuring out whether someone is excited or not when they open a present.

One of the greatest myths in the world – and the phrase “greatest myths” is just a fancy way of saying “big fat lies” – is that troublesome things get less and less troublesome if you do them more and more. People say this myth when they are teaching children to ride bicycles, for instance, as though falling off a bicycle and skinning your knee is less troublesome the fourteenth time you do it than it is the first time. The truth is that troublesome things tend to remain troublesome no matter how many times you do them, and that you should avoid doing them unless they are absolutely urgent.

The world ‘bubble’ is in the dictionary, as is the word ‘peacock,’ the word ‘vacation,’ and the words ‘the,’ ‘author’s,’ ‘execution,’ ‘has,’ ‘been,’ ‘cancelled,’ which make up a sentence that is always pleasant to hear.

“He was interested in everything and almost everybody, and the way he looked at things with fresh eyes made me see them fresh too.”

Do you believe in the theory of the “7 basic plots”? I think there’s something to it – especially after hours of “Text and Image Semiotics” classes in college – but I’m not sure if they’re limited to the ones in Christopher Booker’s book. I’d like to officially add one to the list: Stranger coming to Town. This plot is one of my favorites, and no, I’m not a westerns fan. What I am attracted to is the idea of the agent of change, who with the power of his personality, shakes up the ‘ordinary’ world of the sleepy town. It’s all about microeconomics!

I might actually post a list of favorite “Stranger coming to Town”s… off the top of my head I would add Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (which actually starts with the line “Lymond is back.”). Pride & Prejudice, The Secret Garden, The Enchantress of Florence. Could Rhett be the ultimate Stranger? Jane Eyre? Any others you can think of?

Anywhooo, all this to say that Belle Prater’s Boy is another good example of the Stranger coming to Town, but packaged for kids. I can’t remember why or when I added it to my wishlist, but it was probably when I was looking out for recommended Southern Lit. The book is very short, very charming and very southern. It has none of the racial themes common to books set in the South in the 50s, but it’s still about difference and acceptance: in appearance, in wealth and in education.

At 5am on October 1953, Belle Prater leaves her bed and vanished from the face of the earth. Her son, Woodrow has to leave the “shack” where he’s lived all his life and go to his grandparents’ in town. “Town” is Coal Station, a village in the mountains of Virginia with only two streets, but where social hierarchy matters as much as in Antebellum Savannah or Charleston. Next door lives his cousin Gypsy Arbutus Leemaster. Gypsy is still trying to cope with the death of her own father, so both cousins can help each other in dealing with the loss of a parent. Also, Gypsy and Woodrow’s moms are sisters with a very shaky relationship because Gypsy’s father (the other Stranger coming to Town of the book) was once Belle’s boyfriend.

Woodrow is the new kid in town, but he puts his sense of humor to good use and in no time he makes a name for himself in school and in his new family. He reminded me of Calvin from Calvin & Hobbs, because he always comes to mind when I think about the kind of kid I’d like to have (Alex, beware of what you ask for!!). Like Calvin, Woodrow is fascinating because he’s confident in what makes him different and becomes loved for it. I was also reminded of Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia – see the type?

The book unravels juicy mysteries and secrets from the past, but it’s worth it just because of this most peculiar of Strangers. A natural-born story-teller with crossed-eyes, who knows exactly where chiggers have their nests.

I’m fascinated by the London blitz. It was an extraordinary time that brought out the best in people: courage, unity and sheer, unwavering resilience. It’s things like the Blitz (and the BBC! and the British Museum! and mince pies! and…) that make me the anglophile I am 🙂 I’ve read several books about it, saw movies and documentaries and have on my living-room wall, right next to my bookshelf, this famous image of a London library after an attack:

Within the topic of the Blitz, I find the evacuation of the city’s children to the country especially interesting. Don’t you think it’s the perfect fertile ground for a book? City children, half scared, half excited, are taken to adoptive families in the British countryside. I can already see a dozen stories popping-up in my head.

Paradise Barn is a children’s mystery set exactly during the Blitz. In the small English village of Great Deeping life for best-friends Molly and Abigail seems uncomplicated, even with the frequent air-raid warnings and food coupons brought on by the war. But two events will shatter their well-ordered routine: a stranger is found murdered in their village (close to their homes!) and Adam, an evacuee boy from London, has come to live at Molly’s house. Soon the two girls team-up with Adam to solve the mystery.

The plot follows in the footsteps of Enid Blyton but with a modern edge that makes it appealing to adults. In a way it’s also a coming of age story because we see these children process change, grief and The Unknown. At some point for instance, Molly is confronted with the extraordinary concept that sometimes it’s better to tell a lie and that not everything (or everyone) is either good or bad. Moral greyness is one of the toughest parts of becoming an adult: it’s when you start making the tough choices. All these conflicts are subtlety dealt with and at no point does Paradise Barn becomes patronizing or simplistic. 

The story also mixes “rich historical detail with suspense and adventure”. I was absolutely engrossed by the vivid descriptions of the air-raids over Great Deeping and the London bombings. In the background, Victor Watson gives us glimpses of the day-to-day life of a small village during WWII (a particular episode involving an invitation for tea got me a bit teary).

Comparisons with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie are inevitable, but if made choose, I’d be in the Paradise Barn team. Somehow I didn’t fell as warmly towards (or as close to) Flavia as I did towards the Molly and Adam. The lovely art cover and the charming map of the village inside also helped create the right “mood” for the story. As other reviewers described it on GoodReads: serene and unpretentious.

Any good recommendations for books set in/about the Blitz?

In a distant future, our society has eliminated pain and hardship by converting to “Sameness”. The other side of the coin is that through a mix of medication, social control and genetic engineering, we have also eradicated emotional depth from our lives. The Giver follows the story of a boy named Jonas who on his twelfth anniversary is selected to become the “Receiver of Memory,” the person who stores all the memories of the time before Sameness, if present leaders need advice in handling new situations.

Apart from the previous Receiver, Jonas is the only person in his community who knows, for instance, what snow is, since all hard climate conditions were with the Sameness.

The book is a typical blue pill/red pill scenario: would you prefer ignorant bliss or the hard truth? I always answer the truth without hesitation, but then again, I’m not starving and have a warm and safe bed to sleep in.

The Giver is also one of the most “challenged” children books in libraries and schools across the US. It deals with harsh topics, topics we wish children wouldn’t have to deal with, but it’ done in an intelligent way, without paternalism or white lies. The euthanasia and suicide scenes creeped the hell out of me, but I remember myself at 12 and wish I had read this book at that time. It would have had a bigger impact then. Why not talk openly about depression, suicide, massification and loss of individualism then, at the threshold of adulthood? But then again, it’s easy to talk now, when I’ve been through it and still don’t have children.

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