by Jeanette Winterson
ISBN: 0747580642

Tanglewreck is Winterson’s first foray into the young adult market. (The King of Capri is an illustrated book aimed at younger kids, and everything else she’s written has been very much intended for adult audiences.) Curiously, I think it is also her longest novel to date. I’ll admit, I very much wanted to love this book. As a reader, I have a history with Winterson — and I even picked this up at Foyle’s, in London.

But I didn’t love it. Not in the way I loved Lighthousekeeping, with which Tanglewreck inexplicably shares characters. I was hoping for explicit connections between the two books, but there weren’t any. I respect Winterson’s right and ability to remix ideas and even characters (Weight is, after all, a cover story), but don’t think she pulled it off with the same level of inventiveness and magic here.

I suppose it is possible that I’m being too hard on this book. Maybe, if I were a twelve year old living in London, the mobile phone references would seem normal and not forced. Possibly the too convenient abilities of the Throwbacks wouldn’t have bothered me, and Abel Darkwater would have been more believably sinister. Perhaps my problem is that J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman have set the bar high for young adult books, in that what they write aren’t “just” young adult books, they are books dealing with major themes (love, loyalty, loss, right and wrong, faith, belief) that are accessible to young people. Tanglewreck, though it pains me to say it, is just a young adult book.

It isn’t without its charms, however. I found the popes amusing, the experiments at Bedlam a clever idea, the time tornadoes believable, and who doesn’t appreciate a well-placed woolly mammoth? I’ll be interested to see if Winterson writes another young adult book, but I’ll be more eager to read her next novel for the supposedly grownup, as that is where her real genius lies.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

by J. K. Rowling
ISBN: 0439784549

Just as we did with the last book, we read this one out loud. (Well, Lisa read it out loud. I listened.) I think we both enjoyed the story more this way, as we could stop along the way to discuss plot points, make conjectures, and generally savor the story.

Warning: spoilers ahead. If you don’t want to know anything about what happens in book six, stop reading this now. I talk about what happened, what I think about it, and I also speculate about book seven.

While book six raises more questions than it answers, I didn’t find it irritating at all. (Many things about book five irritated me. Harry being such an ass, while true to form for a fifteen year old boy, was still highly annoying for one thing, and the Privet Drive routine felt very “been there, done that.”)

Well, one minor point was close to irritating: for the love of God, why didn’t we see Ron and Hermione kiss? The whole how-they-feel-about-each-other thing was so well done and so real, I suppose the fact we don’t actually see it happen here is forgivable. And the really big kiss in the story (Harry and Ginny’s) is simply brilliant.

Previously, Rowling made it clear that things in the wizarding world are not simply black or white. (Think of how the wizards have treated other magical and non-magical creatures; how the Weasley’s are a good family with a beloved but bad son in Percy; how bloodlines matter so much to some, and not at all to others; how things are not always how the seem.) Here, the questions about right and wrong become even more complex: Is Snape really a double agent? Whose side is he really on? Is Draco Malfoy really a bad person, or a victim of his circumstances and his parents’ beliefs? Are intentions more important than actions or consequences?

Rowling is clearly setting the stage for the big confrontation between Voldemort and Harry in the seventh book. (The whole cycle of seven books, presumably ending with a Last Battle does remind me of the Chronicles of Narnia.) She isn’t just moving the plot along, though. She invests energy here in making more characters fully human.

They are more human because they are more complicated. Draco is charged with making it possible for the Death Eathers to breach Hogwarts, and with killing Dumbledore. Harry knows he is up to something dreadful — yet he feels compassion for Draco, and when he uses the “for enemies” spell against him, he is truly horrified when he sees all that blood and realizes what he has done. Harry uses the Half-Blood Prince’s notes to succeed in Potions and comes to rely on the Prince, only to discover that the Prince is Snape. As for Snape — he vows to finish Draco’s task for him, and kills Dumbledore. He also doesn’t injure any students on his flight from Hogwarts with the Death Eaters. (I think Dumbledore’s “please, Severus” was about asking Snape to follow through with what they had discussed earlier when they fought; he wasn’t begging for mercy. I also think the reason Snape wasn’t given the Dark Arts job until this year was because Dumbledore knew the job was cursed.)

With the horcruxes, Rowling makes the coming battles of the good (the Order of the Phoenix folks) and the evil (Voldemort’s followers) quite literally about souls — or at least pieces of them. I found the idea that Voldemort’s seeming immortality and not-quite-humanness have the same root cause — his soul has been ripped willingly into pieces — fascinating. This alone made book six work for me.

Here’s what I hope is coming in book seven:

  • More backstory on Snape (and that my belief he isn’t on the wrong side is proven true)
  • Harry quickly gets past his go-it-alone approach
  • Dumbledore’s portrait wakes up (but isn’t a magical cure-all plot device)
  • Hermione and Ron stay together
  • More McGonagall!
  • We find out the real deal with Harry’s Aunt
  • R. A. B. turns out to be Sirius’s brother

Reading the books, and even getting swept up in the publishing phenomenom (we bought it the first day it was out; it raked in more money than the top two movies that weekend) is great entertainment. Of course I can’t wait for book seven.

The Amber Spyglass

His Dark Materials Book III
by Philip Pullman
ISBN: 9780375823352

Note: If you don’t want to know anything about what happens, don’t read this review until you’ve read the book. If you’ve read the earlier books but put this off out of fear of disappointment, then go ahead and read Book III.

This is the final book in Pullman’s trilogy (The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife are the first two books) and, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.

I had put off reading this book, because I was afraid I would be disappointed. I didn’t see how Pullman could pull off the story he was setting up — he had to include a battle against God and the fall (or not) of a second Eve. Not to mention resolving all the issues with other characters such Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, the witch Serafina, and the scientist Mary Malone.

In reading the first two books, I found myself asking whether or not they were truly children’s books, or merely fantasy novels marketed that way. (Think Harry Potter, think increased sales opportunities with the crossover to adult readers.) This third book, however, I think it is most clear that Pullman wrote these books for younger readers.

Why? Like with all good stories — and I’m thinking story in the fairy tale sense here — this one has a moral. Pullman doesn’t pull any punches delivering his messages: what matters is how we live in the here and now, how we engage with life, how we treat other people, and don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.

Really, it is surprising Pullman’s books haven’t drawn the ire of Christian wing-nutty groups. You know, the folks who think Harry Potter is evil as wizards and witches are obviously satanic. The evidence suggests that Pullman, unlike J.K. Rowling, is actually looking to pick a fight with them: “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”

The situations Pullman’s characters find themselves could all be seen as small versions of the big truth he is trying to tell his readers, that “all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity.” Mrs. Coulter thinks she is pursuing Truth, Lord Asriel thinks his battle is in the service of truth, the armored bear Iorek believes he knows the truth about the world, Will is less certain but no less driven to do the right thing and he will not lie, and Lyra spins beautiful lies only to learn that it is the truth that will save her.

Not everything works, just as not everything in the first two books worked. The title artifact isn’t magcial this time around (I was grateful) but the other two devices still are, and are still much-needed to make the plot function. From these devices to Asriel’s intention craft, it seems Pullman can’t decide if technology should be real, or should be magical. And if I am to be honest, I could have done without any redemption for the evil monkey lady Mrs. Coulter, as I really did enjoy disliking her.

Then there were the things that I think worked. I liked what happens to God in the end, with the cliff ghasts attacking him, Lyra and Will helping him, and the way he dissolved, confused and unrecognized, into the air. The spineless people on wheels were good, though I have a penchant for nonhumanoid intelligent life. Learning how witches become witches was also an unexpected treat. Ending the tyranny of the land of the dead was also something that worked for me, though it was most unfair to have to watch Lee Scoresby die twice.

We are told that Mary Malone, scientist and former nun, will play the role of tempting serpent to Lyra’s innocent Eve. I liked that the temptation — if you can call it that — wasn’t the breaking of a commandment from God, but instead was holding up a metaphorical mirror to Lyra so she could recognize her own feelings and understand the power in her own body. Yes, there is sex, and many might see that as an expected or stereotypical Fall, but it wasn’t sex that got Eve into trouble the first time, it was a bite from an apple. (Though, to be fair, Lyra does seductively offer Will a bite of fruit. Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

I suppose that one of the reasons I was not disappointed in the end was that the story was messy all along, and it didn’t end in a traditionally happy way. Lyra and Will must always be apart — the loophole that would have allowed them to see each other is instead used to free the dead. Pullman revealed himself to be writing fantasy to encourage children to think critically for themselves about received truths — and I think that is so important I’m willing to forgive a great many things to follow the story.

Zen Shorts

John J. Muth, illustrator
ISBN: 0439339111

Stillwater is a giant panda, something of a Zen master. He meets three children when his umbrella is blown into their yard — and as he befriends each one, he tells them a classic Buddhist story.

Muth depicts Stillwater and the three children with watercolors: spare, color not too intense but not too pale, with light that perfectly captures a lazy afternoon. The giant panda manages to look substantial, solid, soft and quick and light.

When Stillwater is telling stories the art switches to an Asian calligraphy-influenced style. The black and white drawings on pale pages focus attention on the story, as Stillwater and the child he is telling it to recede. The stories contain lessons about possessions and generosity, the perception of luck, and holding on to anger and frustration. Because they are zen stories, the lessons aren’t heavy-handed, and children (both the three in the book, and the intended audience for the book) are left to ponder the meaning of the stories with only gentle guidance from Stillwater.

Graceful art, solid lessons, and an entrancing panda make this a highly recommended title.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

by George Saunders

illustrated by Lane Smith

ISBN: 0375503838

In case I wasn’t entirely clear on this point earlier, I love George Saunders. He may be a genius.

Frip is a small (three-house) goat-keeping village. Gappers are spiky orange critters with “multiple eyes like the eyes on a potato.” Gappers shriek with joy when they get near a goat. The goats, understandably, are made miserable by the shrieking gappers. The children of Frip spend all their time brushing gappers off the goats, lugging them to a cliff, and tossing them into the ocean. The gappers march across the ocean floor and attach themselves, shrieking, to the goats all over again.

So what we’ve got here are very persistent gappers indeed. Plus miserable goats and miserable children. Saunders has created a great setup to teach lessons about living in community, helping people, self-righteousness, and grief. He also includes other, lesser lessons, such as: you should not pay a team of men to carry your house into a swamp; “nobody likes the idea of starving naked outdoors”; and “you are not alone in this world, you sweet little goof.”

Lane Smith’s illustrations perfectly convey the oddness of Frip. The strangely angular, textured pictures match both the humor and near-despair of the narrative. The gappers themselves are both fascinating and ugly, with their spikiness, bulging eyes, orangeness, and sometimes visible little teeth. One gapper has a lumpy head, on account of his larger than average brain.

The little girl who, aside from the gappers and the goats, is the focus of the story, is named Capable. Now I’d say right there is reason enough to go buy this book — how often is the ostensible hero a capable girl? And her nemesis is a freaky, shrieking hoard of orange that swarms out of the sea every day. Plus, her father only eats white food, so she has to paint everything with an edible mixture of goo or he’ll starve. So she is really quite something, and someone that every little girl, and little boy too, should know. If I were inclined to ever say anything about somebody’s “inner child” I’d say you need to go buy this book for yours. But I’m not, so I won’t.

The book is as an object, quite wonderful. Half the size of the average illustrated children’s book, it has a solid binding for its eighty-something pages, a translucent dust jacket showing the red, green, and blue houses of Frip (with goats), and there are orange spiky balls on the endpapers. It feels good in your hands; one reviewer said “[t]his is such an enchantingly beautiful and bizarre little book that even if your kids love and crave it, you probably shouldn’t let them have actual possession of it.”

You may need to do a little digging around to find it. Published in 2001, it is neverthless due to certain idiocy on the part of publishers, technically out of print. It is available used on Amazon and other places. Track it down, so you can admire, laugh, wonder, and then do it all over again.

The Subtle Knife

His Dark Materials Book II

by Philip Pullman

ISBN: 0375823468

Note: spoilers in this review. If you don’t want to know anything about what happens, don’t read this until you’ve read the book. If you read Book I, even if you felt only so-so about it, read Book II.

This second book in Pullman’s trilogy is faster-paced and less annoying (no hisself here) than the first book, The Golden Compass. While I missed Iorek the armored bear, I think this novel is better than Compass.

Knife is set in our world, in Lyra’s world, and in a strange third world where the adults are preyed upon by soul-sucking Specters. It turns out that people in worlds other than Lyra’s have their dæmons “on the inside” or so Lyra decides it, because the dæmon-less people she meets are alive and not soulless.

The bigger questions Pullman asks are given more room in this book. Early on, I took “She is the one who came before, and you have hated and feared her ever since! Well, now she has come again, and you failed to find her…” to mean that Pullman was going to explore the question “what if the Messiah was female?” That turns out not to be what he is asking, though. I do think looking at Eve’s fall as a mistake, and the angels’ failed rebellion as a loss for the good guys is, if not the same kind of question, equally interesting.

I liked Will, the twelve-year-old boy who Lyra constantly compares to Iorek, much better than I liked Lyra. For all her fated, special status and her ability to make other characters love and care about her, I find her whiny, not as smart as she thinks she is, and more than a bit annoying. Perhaps this is fitting for a mother of the human race, who knows.

Pullman has a hell of a setup going on here. He seemed to rely a bit less on the magic truth-telling alethiometer this time around, but then he did introduce a different magical potentially plot-fixing-uppable object. There were some neatly wrapped up bits here, with Grumman and Will, and other characters left hanging, such as Dr. Mary Malone, nun-turned-physicist. Iorek and Lord Asriel were mentioned enough that I feel safe in assuming they make appearances again in the last book, along with that evil monkey woman, Mrs. Coulter, and my favorite witch, Serafina Pekkala.

I don’t know that I think Pullman can satisfactorily resolve all the issues he raises, but since he made me cry reading this book (when Hester and Lee Scoresby die) and he asks interesting questions, I want to see if he can. Witches and angels fighting on the same side, against The Church and against God — I need to see how this turns out.

Tibet: Through the Red Box

by Peter Sís
ISBN: 0374375526

Caldecott-honored Sís tells a fantastic yet true story in this book. When Sís was a small child, his father, a documentary filmmaker, was sent away to film a highway project in remote China. What was supposed to be a two-month absence stretched out to two missed Christmases. When Sís is injured, his father finally returns, and tells him the stories of his journey as he lies in bed, recovering.

It turns out that the highway project the elder Sís was sent to film was the Chinese forcing their way into Tibet. An accident separates Sís the father from the rest of crew, and he is left to find his way in a strange land, not knowing the language or even where he is. During his ordeal, he keeps a diary.

Sís, author-illustrator, uses his father’s diary (kept in his study, in a red box) and his memory of his father’s stories about Tibet, to create a visually and emotionally rich book. Sís manages to present the story from three points of view: his father’s from the diary, his own as a child, and his now as a grown-up.

He uses his father’s study, full of wonderful objects, to ground the story. Sís knows how to use color — red, green, blue, and the black of night are all important. He adds so many small touches with his side-notes and secondary sketches that even the more text-heavy pages include absorbing images. There are mandalas, recreations of family snapshots with the father figure a missing-yet-glowing white, and detailed two-page landscapes.

The stories cover how his father was sent out on his journey, his unlikely interaction with a postal boy, stories about yetis, monks, human-headed fish, and the Dalai Lama. The horror brought to the story is by the reader, because we know the consequences of China coming to Tibet. There is also the near-horror of Sís not realizing how important the Tibet stories and his father’s sharing of them really were.

This book tells the kind of tales that are too extraordinary to be true, yet they feel so right the way they are told they couldn’t be anything but. Highly recommended.

The Golden Compass

His Dark Materials Book I
by Philip Pullman
ISBN: 037582345X

This is one of those books I was both interested in and leery of reading because of all the buzz surrounding it. Interest finally won out; I’m glad it did.

The book did have its flaws, and while it may seem unfair to lead with those, I’m going to. First, the dialect Pullman finds it necessary to foist on his readers is unfortunate and unnecessary. I doubt it would ever be a good idea to have a character use the word hisself, and here it is a fork in the eye each time it happens. Second, I realized how little patience I have for what I call the ‘cloak-wearing tropes of fantasy fiction.’ As in, really, do people have to wear cloaks and cloak-like clothing and does it always have to be a solidly sexist world? Third, if there is a nationwide manhunt for a girl with brilliant blonde hair, why wouldn’t someone dye it darker?

None of these flaws, even taken in combination, are major. They are annoying, and only because I liked the book enough to care, to want it to be even better. (As it is the first of a trilogy, I’ll see if these sorts of things improve or not.)

I liked the book because I found the premise appealing. It is set in a world where science never managed to separate itself from the Church, so theology and physics aren’t unrelated disciplines. Something strange is going on in this world, and a young girl is drawn in to events beyond what she can understand at the outset because she is a pivotal figure in the events that will transpire. And yes, you do know that from the outset — not exactly prophecy, but destiny is invoked early on.

Dæmons are one of the most interesting creatures in the book. Well, they aren’t actually separate creatures, they are animals that share a consciousness with their person. All human beings (and witches) have dæmons. Children’s dæmons can change form, becoming a dolphin, moth, cat, mouse or any other kind of creature. They can’t go very far from their people, and they settle into a permanent form when children grow up. What kind of dæmon a person has supposedly says a lot about who they are. All servants have dog dæmons, witches always have birds because theirs can travel some distance apart, and most people have a dæmon of the opposite sex, but not everyone does. Dæmons mean individual people are never truly alone. From a storytelling perspective, it means Pullman can put things into conversation that otherwise he couldn’t.

I found the most compelling characters in the story to be the armored bears. These bears have human-like hands, and they are skilled metal workers. A bear’s armor is his soul (similar, or is it the same? as a person’s dæmon) and they have strict moral codes. One bear, Iorek, who is a central character in this book, was stripped of his armor and sent into exile. He made himself new armor, but it was taken from him by townspeople who tricked him. Iorek drinks because he doesn’t have his armor; he tells Lyra (the pivotal and recognizable blonde girl) he won’t need to drink anymore once he gets his armor back. She is fascinated by Iorek because he doesn’t have a dæmon, and because apparently bears have the power to make their own souls.

The book also has boat people, scholars, Church bureaucrats, Turkish kidnappers, and Tartars who practice trepanation. There are forces of destiny, questions of theology, and meditations on knowing yourself and embracing your identity. Pullman isn’t afraid to have his characters hurt, and he will kill them (and not just an “Ensign Smith” character.)

The book ends on a cliffhanger note — one crisis resolved only to point to another — as a reader would expect from the first book in a planned trilogy. I will read the next one, hoping for fewer annoying ticks and more resonating stories like Iorek’s. Recommended.

The Rabbits

by John Marsden & Shaun Tan

ISBN: 0968876889

Brookline Booksmith has long been one of my favorite bookstores, and their latest bit of book display strategy is the sort of thing that helps explain why: they set up a Kids Books for Adults section.

So I now I have another Shaun Tan book. His work, which I’ve reviewed before (The Red Tree, The Lost Thing) is stunning. His pictures provide the first-gasp oh experience as well as delights that come with careful discovery. Page after page reveals rich visuals comprising surprising and vivid colors, swirls of paint, fingerprints, sharp angles, and soft torn paper edges.

The text is clear and straightforward, with the sort of naked honesty that you can find in good kids books. This is the story of rabbits coming to take over a world and change it into something worse than it was before they arrived. At least that is how the creatures who were there first (and readers) see things. I could also say that it is a story about environmental degradation or a story about colonization — because it is those things too — but I am reluctant to say these things because I don’t want to brand this as a “politically correct” book. It isn’t. It carries a message that is political (or should be, in our world) but it delivers the message with art and grace, not knee-jerk platitudes, quick fixes, or unthinking condemnations.

It ends with a question: “who will save us from the rabbits?” I think that is a good question for adult or child readers of the book to be left with, as the question of “who will save us? or “who will save me?” is one I think everyone has invested some mental energy in, big or small.

Highly recommended. I mean, come on, if you’ve been reading my reviews for any length of time, go buy a Shaun Tan book already, would you?

The Lost Thing

by Shaun Tan

ISBN: 0734403887

Technically speaking, I suppose this is a children’s picture book. That is the section of the store where I found it (and Tan’s excellent The Red Tree) but I think that has as much to do with the need to pigeonhole books as anything else.

The illustrations contain a fascinating level of detail. Each page is a collage, using old engineering and physics textbook pages, oil paint, acrylic paint, even bottlecaps. One could spend hours discovering small touches — like the ad for a “mobile visual technician” for whom “No plumbing too hard to draw!” or the curious whisps of smoke appearing on nearly every page. Tan works with a consistent color scheme, using aged, yellowed paper, a muted red, and many grays. As an object alone, the book is both a sturdy and beautiful thing. Kids (who are old enough) would likely be spellbound by all the gears, tubing, and pipes as they try and figure out what goes where, and why.

And “what goes where, why” is really what this story is about. Set in a creepy, controlling, near-future-yet-retro environment, it is the story of noticing a lost thing and figuring out what to do about it. Sort of an object lesson in doing what is convenient versus doing what is right. Unlike many lessons delivered in children’s books, this one comes across without heavy-handedness. One of Tan’s gifts is his ability to create an understanding of potentially difficult topics that are generally thought of as adult (depression, hope, alienation) but are, I think, quite appropriate for children.

Highly recommended — particularly for adults.