Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Keeper, by Kathi Appelt

Published in hardcover by Atheneum, 2010

You know when you want a book to be so good, and you have such high hopes - even put off reading it because you don’t want the whole thing to be over and done with? That’s how I felt about Keeper. And then, when I finally started reading, all those hopes got that nasty feeling of deflation. It’s not that Keeper is a bad book. It just isn’t what I expected, or hoped for.

My major problems with it:
-I don't like it when characters use obvious and self-referential slang, all the time. Therefore, every 'cooleoleo' and 'stealth kiss!' and 'halloo hallay' made me cringe and step out of the story.
-I don't have a problem with stuttering characters, but it gets painful and annoying to read.
-It bugs me when characters state obvious things to themselves or just put obvious things out there in general. Like Keeper watching the moon come out and then saying 'the moon!' Appelt uses this a lot and I find it tiresome to read, and redundant.
-Which brings me to the main issue of this book - it moves very slowly. Too slowly, I think, for a children's book. There are many flashbacks and cuts to different characters. Some of it is cute. I found the chapters on both Jack and Henri's and Signe and Dogie's relationships well done and quite touching. But if the driving narrative behind this story is Keeper taking a boat out to sea to find her mermaid mama, then it is, at best, an idle.

Appelt can do simple, clear, lyrical language, and do it well. At times there is too much repetition of words and ideas, to the point that it feels a little overdone and like it's tipping a hat to its own cleverness. I know this is an attractive device for kids, and I can see how it might sweep them up and keep them reading. But it just doesn't work for me.

Keeper does redeem itself with some moments of very lovely prose. I particularly liked 'In the deep disappointment of the night, the sound of Sinbad's purr slipped into Mr. Beauchamp's ear.' The little coastal town of Tater and the Oyster Ridge Road are both portrayed with obvious care and affection. And there were, of course, mermaids. But I just didn't feel the magic with this one.

"It didn't matter, did it, what Jack was? It only mattered that he loved him."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Peter Pan

...Hook found himself face to face with Peter, and the others drew back. The two enemies looked at each other for a long time. Hook shuddered slightly, but there was a smile on Peter's face.
   "So, Pan," said Hook, at last. "This is all your doing."
   "Aye, James Hook," Peter answered, "it is all my doing."
   "Then prepare to meet your doom, my cocky boy," snarled Hook.
   "Have at you," cried Peter, and the fight began.
One of my all-time favourites is the incomparable Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie. This is a beautiful, beautiful story, rich in theme, that just about breaks my heart every time. Peter Pan, Tinkerbell ('You silly ass!') and Captain Hook are such fantastic, layered characters. P.J. Hogan's 2003 live action movie version is also one of the most stunning kids films you will see, and Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan is perfect.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Keepers: Museum of Thieves, by Lian Tanner

Published in hardcover by Allen & Unwin, 2010.

Three things attracted me to Museum of Thieves: the cover, which I think promises just the right amount of adventure and intrigue; the concept (a fantasy adventure set in an ancient museum? Amazing!); and the fact that Lian Tanner is from Tasmania. Originally hailing from this beautiful state myself, I always feel a little surge of pride over anything vaguely creative-artsy and Tasmanian. So I really wanted to like this book.
The story centres around Goldie Roth, who lives in the repressive city of Jewel and runs away on Separation Day. She takes refuge in the mysterious Museum of Dunt and is taken under the wing of Olga Ciavolga and Sinew, the Keepers of it, and initially scorned by Toadspit, a fiery little boy who lives there with them. They train Goldie to be a ‘Thief’, and her training begins to come in handy when the Museum encounters the corruption of The Fugleman, and his plans to use the evil forces of the Museum to invade Jewel.
First of all, I absolutely love that the story is centered around a museum. The Museum of Dunt in has layers and layers to it, is stuffed with thousands of lost and forgotten things, has a will of its own and is dominated by an eerie, menacing presence. Tanner uses it to create a great sense of adventure and discovery. Goldie and Toadspit are proactive, clever protagonists and once the action picks up about halfway through, the story rollicks along at a nice pace.
It didn’t quite win me over, though. A few of the plot points and lines of dialogue I felt I had read many times before, and a few of Goldie’s moments of self-discovery were a bit forced. At times I didn’t really feel emotionally invested in the story. That being said, I do recognise the fact that I am an older reader, and can appreciate that the story will have different resonances with a younger audience.
There seems to also be quite a lot of death, or promise of it, in this book. It feels slightly out of sync with the rest of the story, maybe because it doesn’t really seem to have a large impact on everyone who witnesses it, which is strange as Jewel is set up as a very subdued, safe city. This may be what causes the lack of emotional investment that I mentioned before.
There is certainly loads of adventure to be had, though. And it makes me want to live in a museum. I think the series has promise, and am interested to see how Tanner will advance Goldie’s story in the coming books.
"Go home and be good?" She grinned at Toadspit, and shook her head. "I've barely begun."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Merrow, by Ananda Braxton-Smith

Published by Black Dog Books, 2010

Let me begin by saying that I just love Black Dog Books as a publisher: their attitude, their enthusiasm, the children’s and YA titles they produce. I first discovered Merrow whilst browsing their site, and knew straight away it had to go on my reading list; I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, but one possibly about a Merrow? That put me very much in the realm of The Little Mermaid, which is one of my favourite stories (book and film) ever. After reading it was also seeped in Manx folklore - another fascination of mine - I begun to have very high expectations.
Were they fulfilled? Yes. Ananda Braxton-Smith has written a charming little tale and I found it a delight to read from beginning to end.
What is a Merrow? If I have my Irish folklore correct – and I’m pretty sure I do, because as a teenager I very nearly cleared out the Celtic mythology section of the town library – it is the Irish equivalent of a mermaid. The females are beautiful, the males are not (!). They can also shape-shift between merrow, human and animal (mostly cattle) form by means of a red feather cap, sometimes a cape. Offspring of a marriage between a merrow and human will often be covered in scales.
This is the dilemma facing Neen: marked by her scales, she is both an outsider in the community and a young girl eager to reclaim the truth about her family and her self. This is what feeds the story and gives it an emotional brevity – we all want to know where we fit in the world.
And it is a wonderful  world Braxton-Smith creates. I love the way the characters speak; their vernacular, their quirks, and the stories they tell. I was familiar with many of the little folk tales that sprung up, courtesy of Ma Slevin, and it was great to see them getting page space. I love the relationship between Neen and Ushag and the way it develops. I love the way Neen views the world, and I love that the emotion here is raw and real and yet filtered through something distinctly otherworldly. I love the clash of the old and new worlds  and I love the way Merrow is so stubbornly unique.
Most of all I love the way Braxton-Smith uses words to evoke time and place and feeling. There are some very beautiful passages that make you feel the heat, the lethargy, of the summer, the movement of the ocean, or the sound of Scully’s fiddle as he plays deep into the night.
I loved this book. I think the best way I can describe it is imperfectly perfect.
"I looked upward and pictured how it might have been to sink forever into this dappling light; how its air would rise as the body sank, falling slowly, face to the sky, and all above just hair and bubbles."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Toymaker, by Jeremy de Quidt

hardcover, published by David Fickling Books, 2008.

I can think of no better book to kick off my first post than The Toymaker, by Jeremy de Quidt. I first came across it in the children's book section of the University of Melbourne Library (oft visited when I really should have been rummaging about trying to find books that I could quote to support my otherwise crappy arguments about post-structuralist literary theory).

It was the cover that drew me in - I had never heard of the book but I thought, that book looks like a classic. And I truly hope that time may prove me right, because this is a gorgeous book, with just the right mix of old-fashioned story-telling and heartbreakingly beautiful concept that should see it achieve 'classic' status. The story drew me in from the get go and I've rarely stopped thinking about it since.

This is the concept of The Toymaker: What good is a toy that will wind down? What if you could put a heart in one? A real heart. One that beat and beat and didn’t stop. What couldn’t you do if you could make a toy like that? What follows is a story of fabulous, gothic-inspired characters, a chase/pursuit big on menace and tension and some truly dark, atmospheric moments. But what I loved was the exquisiteness of this book - the innovation, the sinister motivations, the conviction of the story-telling and authorial voice.

The opening chapter is a masterful example of inviting the reader into the story, inviting them to be a part of it, invest in it. And it moves swiftly on from there, with just the right amount of moments where you have to go back and read passages of prose because of the clarity they provide.

The Toymaker has a very gothic tone, some quite scary/violent moments and some graphic descriptions. It may not be suitable for all children. But it is a stunning book, beautifully produced, with a final revelation worth sticking around for.

"Even little dolls with sparrows' hearts sometimes remember they were sparrows once."