Monthly Archives: May 2012

Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke is a big-name children’s author.  She’s had two of her books turned into films (Inkheart and Thief Lord) and for a few years when Harry Potter and magic ruled the shelves, Funke was all the rage with the under 13 set.  And I still think she’s a big name, though her previous book, Reckless had a much quieter reception than usual.  I have to admit I come late to Funke – Reckless was the first novel I read by her, and now Ghost Knight is the second.  Ghost Knight is a return to her usual target audience and tone – a light fantasy adventure story for 8-12 year old readers, though not without some scary moments.

Set in Salisbury, England, Ghost Knight takes advantage of all the legendary hauntings in the city and its cathedral.  The main character, Jon Whitcroft, has just been sent to boarding school in Salisbury by his long-suffering mother.  With all the furore of an eleven-year-old, Jon hates his mother’s new boyfriend, “The Beard.”  His attempts to sabotage their relationship seems to have made him very unpopular in the family – and his latest stunt has resulted in him being packed off to boarding school.

The story really gets going when Jon is chased through the school grounds by a evil-looking gang of ghosts intent on killing him.  None of his classmates can see them, but thankfully his attractive schoolmate Ella, who has experience in these matters, believes him and offers to help.  Together they summon the spirit of Sir William Longspee to help, and together the three face a vendetta and a mystery dating back several centuries.

As I said, this book is fun and rather charming.  The illustrations are beautiful, and would make it a very pleasant read for most 9-11 year olds (and their parents).  What I found frustrating is that the plot seemed to have mostly resolved itself about 2/3 of the way through the book.  Though there were still mysteries to solve, there was no big climax at the end.  Instead there were a number of smaller climaxes scattered through the last two-thirds of the novel.  So while I was pulled along enough to finish Ghost Knight, I wished the suspense and pace had been more intense during the last hundred pages or so.  Also odd was the narration, which told the story from the future.  One got the feeling that an adult Jon was narrating in a wiser voice-over, much like The Wonder Years.  This led to some so-so foreshadowing, but mostly it took another chunk out of the suspense and supposedly life-threatening situations.

I wish I had read Inkheart to know how Ghost Knight compares.  For me, this was a decent read, with some nice imagination and ok characters.  However, I wanted it to be just a little bit better and more-attention grabbing throughout.  Perhaps I’ll have to  bite the bullet and watch that terrible Brendan Fraser movie after all?

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Filed under Book Review, Fantasy, Middle Grade Fiction

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (September 2012)

I picked up The Vanishing Act a few days ago.  Someone asked me  if it was good, but I told them it was still too soon to say – I was only on page 6.  Later I was 50 pages in, and still not sure what I felt.  When I was 100 pages in and still reading, I felt it must be good, but was still not certain who it was written for.  Then I was 150 pages in and thinking how odd and quirky and charming it was, without really knowing if I would recommend it to anyone.  Now I am done, and it is only in the process of writing about it that I am really coming to understand what I read.  Perhaps for a book interested in thinking and philosophy, this is a strong compliment.

The closest comparison I have for The Vanishing Act is to novels by Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie’s World, or to the odd but charming Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne.  This is a whimsical book with the feel of a fable or parable, with a decent heaping of philosophical content.  On a tiny island in the ocean somewhere, after a horrible war, we find Minou (a young girl), her father (a fisherman and a philosopher), Priest (a priest who bakes pretzels and makes origami cranes), Boxman (a magician) and No-Name (a performing dog).  Minou’s mother used to live there also, but she disappeared almost a year ago, and Minou is desperately focused on her return.  Unlike her father and the other Island’s inhabitants, Minou is certain that her mother has not died, but has simply disappeared.  The story begins when Minou and her father find a dead boy on the beach – an oddly comforting discovery for the two of them.  The body smells of oranges, and seems to enter their lives with a promise to connect them to what they desire most.  For Minou, this is her mother; for her father the philosopher it is to find the fundamental truth from which all others can be drawn.  In the end, as they care for the body during the three days it takes for their delivery ship to arrive, Minou and her father both experience closure for her mother’s death.  No longer reliving the past, Minou is able to look towards her future and imagine the day when she will leave the island.

Like Waiting for Godo, we don’t know where the characters are, or why, but it does not matter.  They have been collected here by the author precisely so she can tell Minou’s story.  Reason and imagination, the head and the heart, are in constant tension in this book which pays homage both to philosophy and to art.  The writing is lovely, the characters interesting (if not entirely unique) and the mystery surrounding Minou’s mother’s disappearance intriguing enough to keep a reader hooked.  I was not a fan of the philosophy – whenever the characters overtly tried to think “rationally” or “philosophically” they ended up closing their minds to the world around them.  Some philosophical questions were opened up for the reader, but I think in the battle between philosophy and art, art came on top, when I think it should have been a tie at least.

So while I enjoyedThe Vanishing Act, the question still remains of who is intended to read this novel.  My most likely guess is sophisticated young readers and their sophisticated parents.  Anyone who likes a healthy dose of whimsy.  Voracious readers looking for something unique.  The literary-minded.  Above all, I am curious to see how others will react, and what page they will be on when they know what this reaction is.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Middle Grade Fiction

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

If you haven’t heard of A. S. King, I hope you will soon.  She is a wonderful YA author that I have just discovered, and am thinking of starting a campaign for her (though many of the awards committees like the Prinz, Kirkus, etc. etc. have started without me).

Like John Green, A. S. King creates fantastically compelling and memorable characters to tell her stories.  Her latest, Everybody Sees the Ants came close to being an all-time favourite with me, mostly on the strength of the main character, Lucky Linderman, and his wry look at those around him and his own struggles.

I just finished King’s second book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and I was not disappointed.  Like Ants there is a teen facing insurmountable odds and a heartbreaking situation – and in both the details are doled out slowly, keeping the reader in suspense.  Also like Ants, there is an inexplicably surreal element running through the story.  I suspect some readers will be put off by it, but I think King does a remarkable job of weaving the fantastical (and we’re not talking vampires or werewolves) into the real.

To give you an idea: Vera’s best friend Charlie has just died.  Except that when he died, she was angry at him, and now Vera is struggling with the conflicting emotions of losing a life-long best friend, and also a worst enemy.  As the novel progresses, the crack-lines that permeate her life and that tore apart Charlie’s become increasingly apparent.  Him from a family with an abusive father.  Her with a runaway mother and a father incapable of expressing emotion.  Him having fallen in with a bad crowd and a psychotic girlfriend.  Her with a drinking problem that is a repeat of her dad’s as a teen.  Him as a ghost by her side – haunting her and helping her.

The story telling is gorgeous and spins out beautifully – Vera’s past intertwines with the present and is interlaced with chapters told by her father, Charlie “the dead kid,” and the local landmark “the pagoda” (yes, an inanimate building).  Your heart will break for Vera and Charlie and her father, and will swell when it sees what she might make of her future, and the kind of person she is and might become.  I’ve never read a love story/friendship quite like this one – and especially in the YA genre (where every permutation is hashed to death) that is saying something.

This book was sophisticated and meaningful.  Like Ants it was not without its flaws, but it was top-notch, and deserves attention.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Books I've loved, Young Adult books

The Right and the Real by Joelle Anthony

This review originally published in Island Tides, Volume 24 Number 9, May 3-16.

Reading the Right and the Real, I am already a fan of Joelle Anthony. When her first young adult novel, Restoring Harmony, came out two years ago, I read it with great relish.  Not only was it a story rooted in a place I know well (the main character starts out on a Gulf Island much like Gabriola, where Anthony lives, and travels down to Portland) – it was an all-too-real version of the future, circa 2041.  With convincing detail, Anthony turned our familiar West Coast into a bleak and chaotic landscape, populated by believable characters struggling to make their way. 

With The Right & the Real Anthony has once again proven her ability to make a big issue immediate.  Here her focal point is religious cuts, as represented by “the Right & the Real Church,” headed by the loathsome “Teacher.”  The novel begins at Jamie’s father’s wedding, where she is unexpectedly asked by the Teacher to sign the Pledge committing herself to the organisation.  Though her father has been taken in by the Church’s dogma, Jamie has remained aloof.  Yet it is only when she refuses to sign the pledge that the true nature of this organisation becomes apparent. She is summarily cast out of the church, her house, and her father’s life.  Anthony creates a keen sense of frustrated helplessness, as Jamie’s old life is inexorably stripped away from her. I find myself fuming at the unfairness of it all.

Unable to access her father, and refusing to be sent to live with her estranged mother, seventeen-year-old Jamie ends up on the street with few options.  Outside of fantasy or thriller fiction, teen authors rarely force their characters into such desperate straights, though many teens are one argument away from leaving or being kicked out of home. Jamie’s story illuminates everything these teens face: the petty day-to-day struggles to feed oneself, the looming threats of danger and violence on the streets, and the desperation of watching potential futures slip away. Thankfully, Jamie is a tough and resilient heroine, and she is helped by a guardian neighbour, LaVon.  Though LaVon is almost too perfect as a character, it is impossible not to love this gigantic black ex-con trying to kick addiction and live straight, who also knows his way around a hot plate and has an unshakable environmentalist ethic.

As with LaVon, the novel’s main weakness is when it tips towards what we would like to happen in this situation, rather than portraying what is real, particularly in the final act, where a fun but over-the-top caper dominates the action.  Nevertheless, with Anthony’s tight command over detail, character and suspense, The Right and the Real remains a compellingly right portrait of the anguish of losing a loved one and finding oneself without options in a hostile world.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Books I've loved, Just Read, Young Adult books