Review No.11 – Tallow

Tallow – Karen Brooks
Random House, 2011

I love winning things. Who doesn’t? This is the second book I have won after participating in the giveaways on Rowena Cory Daniells’ blog (the first being Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth, the review of which I posted not so long ago). Karen Brooks may be a familiar name to readers of Queensland newspaper The Courier Mail, in which she has a regular column. Tallow is the first book in her YA trilogy, ‘The Curse of the Bond Riders’.

In the canal-laced city of Serenissima there are legends of the Estrattore, a people once venerated, now all but extinct after a religious purge. Only an impoverished candlemaker and his embittered mother know that the child they call Tallow, raised to be an apprentice in their shop, is one of that outlawed race. Even they, however, cannot imagine what the foundling may become, and at what price the secret must be kept. Because the power of an Estrattore is a prize indeed, and Tallow is being hunted.

Tallow opens very slowly with an overused premise – a remarkable infant, a secret prophecy, a humble peasant in the right place at the right time. It only really hits stride about halfway through when my preferred characters, the enigmatically creepy Giaconda and Ezzelino, emerge to make their mark. In fact, this book’s greatest strength lies in the moral complexity of its characters. Unusual relationships and complicated motives make it difficult to predict what they might do next. Even those that on the surface appear cliched (e.g., the humble peasant) are capable of surprises. The final few chapters build to a dramatic climax that promises a very different twist to the continuing story in book two, Votive. ‘The Curse of the Bond Riders’ concludes in the recently released third book of the trilogy, Illumination.

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Losing the Magicians

The page was pure and certain, words were uncertain, but their uncertainty was what made them magical.

– Margaret Mahy, ‘The Tricksters’

There are three kinds of books from my childhood: the ones I found for myself, the ones given to me by somebody else, and the books I absorbed by osmosis, the books I can’t remember reading for the first time because they were always there. Margaret Mahy’s The Pirates’ Mixed-Up Voyage is one of those.

I think it must have been read aloud to me at some stage – introduced to my system, so to speak – but all I remember is the endless re-readings, the feeling I always come away with of having been on a journey, the satisfaction of a perfect ending and that slight sadness of having finished something I wanted to last forever. That’s what it’s like to read a Mahy book. I was raised on them, on stories of mandrakes who eat gingerbread and children who hide in pianos, villainous runaways who open restaurants, leaves that turn into dogs, headmistresses who disappear into a hurricane and turn up forty-odd (very odd) years later. I loved the highly literate parrots in Raging Robots and Unruly Uncles, the use of white walls as blank pages in The Blood-and-Thunder Adventure on Hurricane Peak, the married mermaid and cherry-eating stepmother in Leaf Magic. I read the Cousins Quartet and wanted tights hand-painted with suns and stars, and ice cream for breakfast.

I don’t know when or why I stopped reading new Mahy novels – it wasn’t because I outgrew them, because that is psychologically impossible for sane and healthy people – but I probably found something else. I wandered down a different path. It was only this year I started actively looking for her stories again, finding classics I’d somehow missed after that tangential junction, like The Tricksters (in which I fiercely believe Harry ends up writing Felix back into the world when she’s ready) and The Changeover (which couldn’t quite match up to falling for a ghost in the unconventional romance stakes but won me over with kingfishers appearing from the future and demonic rubber stamps). I even borrowed a biography of Margaret Mahy from the library. Reading about the mad beauty of her life, I thought she sounded the kind of person I’d love to meet.

I will never have the chance. Margaret Mahy died on Monday at the age of 76. She leaves behind a legacy of remarkable books and affectionate memories – the exuberant charm of her personality that comes so vividly through her writing was by all accounts exactly what she was like in person too, the writer who’d turn up for school visits in a penguin suit or rainbow wig, the woman who made her life one long adventure. There are beautiful obituaries already online, but this isn’t one of those. I’m not a personal friend who can talk about what she was like, or an academic who can define exactly what effects her books had around the world. All I can talk about is the effect they had on me. And that’s simple, really. Every time I read her books, I believe in magic.

She rewrote the world. She still does, because for many years to come, forever I hope, people will be picking up her books and getting lost in them. Past tense can’t apply to authors like her. Through the pages of the books she wrote, she will still be remaking reality for whoever reads her words.

In a Mahy book you will find the strange and extraordinary made real and tangible. You will see a landscape of wild colour, an explosion of joyous chaos. But what makes her imagination so special isn’t just the mandrakes, the pirates, the magicians and tricksters. It’s the everyday people and places she imbued with beauty and power. It’s the ordinary world she made extraordinary.

Margaret Mahy, you see, was a magician. And that’s what magicians do.

It’s a strange kind of grief when a favourite author dies, someone you’ve never met but whose words are an integral part of your mental landscape. We’ve lost too many of the greats in recent years – people like Diana Wynne Jones and Lloyd Alexander – people who, in a just and fair world, would be made immortal so as to keep writing forever. They pass the baton into precarious, uncertain hands. The foundations on which the world of books is built quake, but we don’t fall. While books like theirs, like Mahy’s, are the cornerstones holding us up, we never will.

Vignette No.4 – The Origami Girl

The Origami Girl

She was listening for a motorcycle that never came.

It was getting late and rather cold and a midriff-baring black T-shirt was no longer enough, for all its weight in glitter. The girl shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She had a small heart-shaped face half-hidden under a dishevelled mass of bubblegum pink hair; her lips were inexpertly smeared with strawberry gloss, by now mostly rubbed away, her pointed nose sunburned to match. Folded up like an origami girl against the wall under the aluminium awning, just out of a disheartening drizzle, she was watching the raindrops melt against the fluorescent lights of the supermarket parking lot, pooling, shining in the gutter at her feet. They blazed brighter before they died.

A sweet wrapper bobbed past, floating towards the drain, and the girl reached over automatically to fish it out. She looked at it blankly for a moment, this fragment of enticingly patterned foil. Her restless fingers folded its edges inward, twisting it into a new shape. When she was finished there was a violet and silver beetle on the palm of her hand.

Its tiny feet scritched softly against her skin.

She put it down, very carefully, on the ground beside her and looked around. She was sitting quite close to a rubbish bin and things had overflowed from under its broken lid to puddle on the pavement around like the pools of rainwater. There was a white paper napkin, barely used and still dry. The evening breeze nudged it closer to the girl’s hand.

She held it for a minute, until it was warm from her hand, then began to shape the paper as she had shaped the foil, folding, refolding, creasing and smoothing. When she held it up to see what she had made, she was holding a small white bird, slashed by a streak of red lipstick wiped along one wing. Hurt, but fluttering bravely in the wind. Ready to fly.

The girl blew on it gently. The paper bird flapped its wings, lifting off her palm, swooping in an uncertain arc towards the underside of the awning. She tipped her head back as far as she could to watch. The bird’s red-streaked wing grazed the edge of the awning and then it was gone, out into the night and the last drips of the passing rain.

When the girl laughed, her braces sparkled with coloured studs as though she had been eating the Crown Jewels. A night rainbow under the supermarket lights. She put her beetle safely into her pocket before it could disappear down a crack in the pavement and stood up to follow the paper bird into the rain-bright street.

It was waiting for her.

 

Review No.10 – Eyes Like Stars

Eyes Like Stars – Lisa Mantchev

Feiwel and Friends (imprint of Macmillan), 2009

Bertie Shakespeare Smith is not an actress, but lives on the stage; not an orphan, she can only guess at the identities of her parents. She has been with the Théâtre Illuminata for as long as she can remember, where the characters of every play ever written are bound to their parts by the magical tome of scripts known only as the Book. All that, however, is about to change. Bertie is fighting for her right to stay at the Theatre, while Shakespeare’s air spirit Ariel is prepared to destroy everything in order to leave.

I saw this book on the website Goodreads (www.goodreads.com) and liked the very intriguing blurb and beautiful front cover. Unfortunately, it turned out to be yet another of those books that other people glowingly recommend and I just don’t get. Bertie was good. She was a consistent character with bright personality and a strong voice. The Players and their original stories were regularly milked for humour and while sometimes this worked, overall it was not counter-balanced by genuine investment in their personalities, including the underdeveloped love interests in Bertie’s inevitable love triangle. The setting also felt weird. Bertie is a thoroughly modern girl with her blue hair and jeans (loved the hair) but the Players and Théâtre crew didn’t seem to know what era they were from, one minute all classical English and the next throwing in jarring slang, while the audience from outside the Théâtre came across as exaggerated Edwardian aristocracy.

That said, there was a huge pleasure for me in seeing Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew finally get kicked in the shins. He’s had it coming for centuries. I quite liked Ariel too. The idea of the immortal Players is a very intriguing one, all it needed was a more solid context. Eyes Like Stars is the first in a trilogy and I will be interested to see where it goes with book two, Perchance To Dream.

Review No.9 – A Curse Dark As Gold

A Curse Dark as Gold – Elizabeth C. Bunce

Arthur A. Levine Books (Imprint of Scholastic Inc.), 2008

The woollen mill Stirwaters lies at the heart of its community, but has been plagued by uncanny ill luck throughout the generations of its keepers. Inheriting the mill after the death of her beloved father, Charlotte is determined to prove the rumours of a curse to be no more than superstition. Soon, however, with her family’s business reeling from disaster to disaster, she is forced to accept help from an inexplicable stranger who claims he can spin straw into gold. He can save Charlotte’s mill from ruin – if she is prepared to pay his price.

I love fairy tales. I suppose that might be a little bit obvious, given that this is the third fairy tale reimagining I’ve reviewed so far. This book was recommended on Tamora Pierce’s website and after reading Bunce’s Star Crossed, I had high expectations which were only heightened by the beautiful cover of the library hardback I borrowed, with its enigmatic heroine entangled in gold. As to what lay inside, well, let me put it this way. By the last few chapters I was glued in place. There were plot twists I didn’t see coming, characters I wanted to shout at and hug at the same time, creepy mysteries and outrageous injustices – in short, all the ingredients for a very compelling read. Best of all, it was truly original.

SPOILER ALERT. Don’t read this bit until you’ve read the book, it will ruin the story for you as well as making no sense. One of the things that impressed me most about A Curse Dark as Gold was how Charlotte got married halfway through and the story kept going. Yes, it was a big thing in her life, but there was a whole lot more going on that needed resolution. I can’t recall anything else I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, where this has been done. To be fair, I don’t know if it would work in many books, where emotional tension is knitted intrinsically into the rest of the protagonist’s problems (e.g. they can’t be together until the war is over; they blame each other for everything bad that’s going on; they think they’re related and it takes a while to work out they’re not), but it worked here and was very refreshing. Having a young wife and mother running a business on her own as the heroine of a YA novel feels really healthy. Also, I love Rumpelstiltskin as a misunderstood ghost trying to avenge his son. I never saw the story that way before, but now it just makes sense.

The Enchantress and the Pedant

A Mathematical Analysis of Beauty and the Beast

When I was a little girl, Beauty and the Beast was one of my favourite films. Not quite as good as The Lion King, admittedly, which I rewatched until my older siblings fled the room as soon as they heard the first notes of ‘Hakuna Matata’, but Belle was a Disney heroine I could identify with. She was capable and kind-hearted and had useful skills like being able to walk around with her nose in a good story but not trip over things. She tricked the handsome hunter into a pond when he damaged one of her books and fell for the Beast instead, who liked birds and had an incredible library. A perceptive choice, in my opinion. Recently watching the extended DVD edition, however, I discovered a few glaring inconsistencies. I still love the movie, of course, but my inner child kept getting tapped on the shoulder by the inner pedant.

For instance, the curse can only be broken if the Beast finds true love before the age of twenty one. So he can be no older than that at the beginning of the movie, but has to be pretty close because the chronological rose loses its last petal by the end. I always envisaged him meeting the enchantress as a spoiled teenage boy. That would sort of make sense. During the song sequence ‘Be Our Guest’, however, Lumiere says that the castle has been cursed for ten years. That means Beast who turned away the enchantress must have been about…eleven years old.

At that age, it’s normal to be a bit selfish. You don’t know any better. It’s never good to be rude but what would you do if you were eleven and a strange old lady turns up on your doorstep in the middle of the night? You’d ask your parents, right? Oh, yes. The Beast has no parents. Or any family at all.

So what happened to them? Did he get raised entirely by his small army of servants – and if so, what a surprise he turned out a spoiled brat, because being called ‘Master’ by everybody you know must be so humbling on the ego. And all right, the enchantress might reasonably be offended at having the castle door slammed in her face, but transforming a pre-teen orphan into a hideous monster plus all his totally innocent employees into furniture or knick-knacks? How did someone like this become a symbol of wisdom and discipline in the Disney universe?

In fact, why was she testing the young prince at all? Why the extremist punishments? Could she be the real reason his vast and echoing home is devoid of a king or queen, dukes, duchesses, any member of the royal family apart from the Beast himself? Just how old a grudge might this be…

I can’t believe I didn’t see this before. The villain of the story isn’t Gaston. A destructive bully he may be, but that’s nothing compared to a certain vindictive rose-wielding shapechanger with a nasty sense of humour.

Of course, the other explanation is that the people writing the scripts and the people writing the songs didn’t co-ordinate properly and generations of little kids have been too in love with the chatterbox candlestick and porridge-slurping Beast to notice.

That’s a cop-out, though. I like the evil enchantress idea better.

Reviews No.8 – The Courier’s New Bicycle

The Courier’s New Bicycle – Kim Westwood

HarperCollinsPublishers Australia Pty. Ltd., 2011

Melbourne is a city in denial. With post-pandemic Australia facing an infertility crisis and the religious zealots of ruling party Nation First rejecting all treatment except prayer, Salisbury Forth is a courier in the booming trade of contraband hormones. Cycling through the inner-city alleyways where government-sanctioned vigilantes hunt for so-called ‘transgressives’, Salisbury’s is a dangerous world, but when a new player starts trading tainted hormones on the boss’s patch, things are only just beginning to go downhill…

With all the dystopian Americas out there, it’s immensely refreshing to read science fiction set in near-future Australia, and also very scary. There is something very plausible about the scenario Westwood brings to life in her award-winning second novel, a confronting extrapolation of today’s hardline conservative policies, but what I found fantastic about this book was the small, potent ways in which people fought back. Salisbury is a strong voice throughout and all the characters are thoroughly fleshed-out, including the cat. (I loved the cat). This is the book to triumphantly flourish under the nose of anyone who thinks Australians don’t write killer science fiction.