Mary Jane

For those of you who grew up, as I did, in the ’60s and ’70s, no, this isn’t a book about marijuana. But that recreational herb does figure into this book, in more ways than as a code name it shares with the protagonist.

Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau, is one of the most charming coming-of-age stories I have read in decades. It’s not a book with a driving plot, it’s more a slice-of-life story about a particular kind of girl from a specific era and community; but the trans-formation she experiences over the course of one summer of baby-sitting is such a pleasure to witness.

Mary Jane is 14 years old, and the epitome of a sheltered, white, upper-middle-class girl, raised by two correct but cold parents in a respectable lifestyle that includes all the necessities and some of the luxuries of life but lacks passion, humor, and spontaneity. Mary Jane’s daily life consists of an unbending routine in which her lawyer father goes out to work and comes home expecting dinner at six and a quiet atmosphere in which to read his paper and enjoy his drink, while her mother stays home, cleans obsessively, gardens fanatically, adheres to a weekly menu that Mary Jane is required to help prepare, and rigidly polices Mary Jane’s behavior, schoolwork, clothing, and contacts. Aside from a weekly outing after church to lunch at the (all-white) country club to which they belong, there is little deviation from schedule. Mary Jane is a quiet, well-behaved girl with few friends, who finds solace in music (although that is mostly limited to the show tunes her mother enjoys and the religious music she sings in church choir) and reading.

But this summer, the Cone family up the street has asked if Mary Jane will babysit their daughter, five-year-old Izzy, all day every day. They plan to have guests staying with them, and need someone to be a nanny for their daughter while they are busy entertaining. Impressed with this request from Dr. and Mrs. Cone, who seem respectable and well-to-do, Mary Jane’s parents allow her to say yes. Little do they know what awaits Mary Jane behind the doors and windows of a house that seems much like theirs.

Dr. Cone is a Jewish psychiatrist who works from his home office with clients who suffer from addiction. His project for the summer is to be a full-time counselor and presence to rock star Jimmy, a recovering heroin addict, and Jimmy and his glamorous actress wife Sheba will be living with the Cones to facilitate this. Given their celebrity status, their presence in the household is a secret that Mary Jane must keep. Since she has been sheltered from all contact with rock and roll, Jimmy isn’t so familiar to her, but Sheba has been a weekly highlight on TV, for which she hosts a variety show.

Life at the Cones’ house is nothing like anything Mary Jane has ever experienced. Although their daughter, Izzy, is a well-adjusted, loving child, Mary Jane is initially shocked to learn how neglectfully she is treated: There is no meal-planning and they all seem to subsist on junk food and takeout; Izzy wears what she wants, goes to bed when she wants, and bathes irregularly, while her mom avoids the housework in favor of hanging out with Sheba. Mary Jane is gradually integrated into the household as its most necessary member, as she takes over the marketing, meal-planning and cooking, establishes regular bath- and bedtimes for Izzy, and begins to organize the chaos in every room of the house. A quiet, tidy child, Mary Jane is happy to provide these services for the family, especially in return for experiencing a bohemian lifestyle the like of which she never imagined.

Gradually, Jimmy and Sheba introduce her to all the music she’s been missing, while the doctor and his wife show her what a relationship between two loving spouses who adore their child (even though they neglect her sometimes) can be. It’s a household where there is regular hugging, kissing, and verbal expressions of affection, all like water to a parched plant for Mary Jane. In order to keep enjoying this foreign but welcoming lifestyle, however, Mary Jane must begin, for the first time in her life, to tell lies to her parents, from the big one denying the presence of Jimmy and Sheba to little ones that keep her at the Cone house for longer hours every day. As things around her get ever more out of control with the passing weeks of summer, Mary Jane dreads a reckoning.

The character development in this book is delightful, with the naive but realistic Mary Jane as its charming centerpiece. The author knows how to write people—Mary Jane sounds 14, Izzy reads as five years old, and the adults are all individuals with unique yet believable personality quirks. Likewise, the setting of the 1970s is fleshed out accurately, from the pervasive musical theme to the avocado green kitchen appliances and the exclusion of Jews and people of color from the country club. Mary Jane’s father includes President Gerald Ford in his nightly grace before dinner, and the actress, Sheba, is reminiscent of no one so much as Cher in her glory days.

This book is a wonderful exploration of class, race, lifestyle, and gender stereotypes from the era. But it’s also fast-paced (sometimes), often funny or poignant, and a brilliantly rendered view of the transformation of one girl’s life as she witnesses and experiences new things. Some readers complain that nothing much happens, and on a purely event-based level that’s true; but so much happens in the evolution of the individual characters and their relationships with one another! The publishers are trying to hype it as something akin to Almost Famous, but honestly, it reminded me more of Betty Smith’s classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s definitely worth the read.

Akata Witch

My UCLA class of masters students who are studying Young Adult Literature with me this quarter are a sharp bunch, and I have been thoroughly enjoying both discussing the books we are reading for class, and reading their synopses and review comments on Goodreads, where they post their conclusions for class credit.

One recent option for our unit on the paranormal was Akata Witch (The Nsibidi Scripts #1 of 3), by Nnedi Okorafor, and since it was the only assigned work I had not yet read, I picked it up last week along with a number of my students. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it; I read Okorafor’s book Who Fears Death and had a decidedly mixed reaction, partly admiration for its ambition, partly frustration for its all-over-the-map plot that felt like it never settled to one coherent story line. But I had enjoyed her novella Binti, so I trusted that this one might have similar appeal.

I was not disappointed by Akata Witch. I found it fresh and original, immediately bonded with the outsider status of its protagonist, Sunny Nwazue, and enjoyed the juxtaposition of her real world’s clash with the new system of magic she discovers through an unusual personal experience and the intervention of a friend from school and a neighbor to whom he introduces her.

Two of my students mention in their reviews how the book harks back to Harry Potter for them, or that they saw this parallel that has been pointed out by some reviewers. I’m assuming this is because it’s a group of children being inducted into a magical world, with a main protagonist who previously knew nothing of this world or her heritage or place in it. While it’s true that previous to seeing the end of the world in a candle flame (and setting her hair on fire), Sunny had no idea of the extra dimensions to which she was soon to be welcomed, which I guess you could see as parallel to Harry’s experience in going from an orphan under the stairs to a student at Hogwarts through the agency of an admissions letter and the abrupt appearance of Hagrid at his door, that is where the similarity ended for me. In the Potter books, once the children are transported to Hogwarts they enter a closed world, and they rarely set foot outside it for their subsequent years of education, having no contact with Muggles (regular people) except for their summers at home (which are mostly not portrayed in the books in any detail). Conversely, in Sunny’s world the Leopard People (those who possess magical abilities) live in the midst of the Lambs (regular people), and must be diligent to both keep up appearances in that world and keep their juju, their extra dimension of skills, beliefs, and magics to themselves.

This brought up yet another interesting point, from one of my students, Natalie M., who advanced the theory that Akata Witch is magical realism. I initially balked at that idea—it’s paranormal fantasy, I said—but then, as we discussed and tried to pin down the various aspects of magical realism, I realized that the story did fall into the classic definition: A book that is essentially realistic, into which magical elements are introduced as matter-of-factly as the day-to-day. I liked this quote I found in an excellent article by Kelsey McKinney in Vox:

Unlike in fantasy novels, authors in the magical realism genre deliberately withhold information about the magic in their created world in order to present the magical events as ordinary occurrences, and to present the incredible as normal, everyday life.

Some of the things I liked about the book:

The outsider status of the protagonist. She is different from those around her in so many ways: She was born in the United States, but to two Nigerian parents, who later return with their family to Nigeria (when Sunny is nine), so she has been raised as some hybrid of the two and is ostracized for it; she is an albino, with yellow hair and skin “the color of spoiled cream,” so one difference is constantly on display; she is a girl who excels at soccer but isn’t allowed to play, for both misogynistic and physical reasons (she burns too easily in the sunlight).

SUNNY NWAZUE, copyright 2022 Melissa Elliott

The world-building: The story-telling felt so fresh to me, I think, because the world is so obviously not America-centric. The day-to-day events, the culture, the places they visit and the descriptions of those places, the clothing, felt distinctly like something I had never previously experienced, and I enjoyed that.

How the magic works: While the four main characters—Sunny, Orlu, Sasha, and Chichi—are expected to adhere to certain standards in their magical learning and practice and not trespass on forbidden areas, there is not the feeling that their teachers or mentors are attempting to impose conformity on them—rather, they are celebrated for their diverse aspects, and their talents actually follow from them. (For instance, Orlu’s dyslexia makes him an adept at unworking or undoing spells.) There are certain messages here that are often neglected in worlds in which people somehow attempt to master or dominate magical abilities; in this one, the pursuit of power for power’s sake is discouraged, as is perfectionism, particularly comparing one’s own mastery to the progress of others. While there is some system to the magic they practice (gaining knowledge through books, through personal instruction, and through experimentation), there is never any complacency about “how things work,” because the juju can go rogue at any moment, setting up both the magical world and the world as a whole as unpredictable and not to be taken for granted. And I loved some of the details, such as the “chittim” (currency) that rains down on someone for learning something new, having a valuable insight, or successfully performing in a challenging moment. It seemed just the right method of positive reinforcement.

Although some reviewing this book find disturbing the disregard the older Leopards, the mentors, seem to have for the safety of the four when it comes time for them to confront their Oha challenge by defeating Black Hat Otokoto, I actually found that an additional piece of evidence that this is a world based on realism: The mentors fully realize the danger into which the children go and, granted, seem a bit ruthless when considering their fates, but they also recognize that the unpredictability and serendipity of sending these mostly untried practitioners up against this powerful villain may have a good result where calculated measures have failed.

Based on this first book, I think this is a wonderful tale to add to the “canon” of magical systems in teen fiction, and look forward to what the other two books in the series will reveal (if I can ever access them from the library’s extensive holds list!).

Romance and more…

My friend Judi commented that when she was at a loss for something to read or wanted to experience the comfort of a familiar story, she returned to the four-part Chesapeake Bay Saga by Nora Roberts. I had never read anything by Nora Roberts, but she is a prolific author and her books are ubiquitous, so I decided to check out this mini-series.

These books fall into what I would call the “relationship fiction” category, in that there is romance present that is a big feature of the story, but there is also some kind of content that reflects a family dynamic beyond just the true-love part. Roberts’s vehicle for these four novels was clever, in that she created a family of four “boys” who were turned into brothers by the charity of one couple who saved them from difficult beginnings, and then she wrote each book by focusing on the perspective and relationship of one of them.

Each of the boys, previously in an untenable situation, was discovered (in various ways) by Ray and Stella Quinn and adopted away from their pasts to be raised in a supportive and kind environment. As adults, the eldest three—Cameron, Ethan, and Phillip—have gone their own way, Cameron to a glamorous lifestyle mostly located in Europe, where he races fast boats and fast cars and lives on the prize money; and Phillip to a big-city career as an advertising executive with a generous income and an enviable lifestyle. Only Ethan has remained at home (although now in a house of his own) in the small fishing village of St. Christopher on the Chesapeake Bay, trapping crab for a living but investing time and hope into a boat-building business. Then, the acquisition by Ray of 10-year-old Seth, a fourth brother to join their family, is quickly eclipsed by the unexpected and tragic death of their father, who makes the brothers promise, before he dies, to rally around and raise Seth the way he, Ray, would have, given the chance. Although there are various levels of grudging reluctance to give up their chosen lifestyles to return home to take up this challenge, the three are all conscious of just what Ray and Stella (deceased some years before) did for them, and are resolved to honor their father’s memory and wishes by doing the same for young Seth.

The first, Sea Swept, is the story of Cameron, who was discovered as a runaway and car thief when he tried to boost Ray’s car at a young age; after realizing that his motivation was to get away from an abusive alcoholic father who beat him, Ray and Stella Quinn took him in. Now he has made a deathbed promise to his adoptive father to assist in the upbringing of new boy Seth, whose mother beat and neglected him, and Cameron is determined to bring the suspicious and untrusting Seth out of his shell and into the family the way Ray did for him. But an unexpected opponent is Anna, Seth’s social worker, who is playing by the rules of the child welfare system by assessing Seth’s living situation and determining whether it would be more appropriate to either place him in the foster system or reunite him with his real family. Despite his determination not to let this happen to Seth, whose psychological scars he recognizes as akin to his own, Cam is unbearably attracted to the spirited and determined Anna, as is she to him, and their involvement complicates an already fraught situation.

The second, Rising Tides, follows the story of Ethan, the quiet, reflective brother who has made a life for himself as a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay. Ethan’s mother, a drug addict, gave Ethan an unspeakable childhood that, despite his subsequent rescue by the Quinns, has made him determined never to marry or have children of his own, for fear of passing on some random evil gene. Local woman Grace, who despite her former marriage and the birth of her daughter has always cherished an unrequited love for Ethan, is determined not to let this be Ethan’s final word. Their romance plays out against the background of the campaign to keep Seth. In addition, the necessity for all the brothers to move back home in order to create a proper foster environment is the catalyst needed to involve Cam and Phillip in Ethan’s plans for a family boat-building business.

The third, Inner Harbor, is Phillip’s journey. Phillip is perhaps the most successful in terms of career, and also has separated himself the most thoroughly from his small-town origins. But after the Quinns gave him a life (almost literally—he was a gang member who was shot in a drive-by and was saved from death by Stella, the emergency-room doctor, before being adopted), he certainly can’t bring himself to turn down the opportunity for Seth to benefit from the same experience. Somewhat at loose ends after his move from his big-city lifestyle back to the tiny fishing village of his upbringing, Phillip notices Sybill, an intriguing writer who is making the town of St. Christopher the subject of her next book about the psychology of human interaction. But what he doesn’t know is that Sybill has a secret relationship to Seth that threatens everything the Quinns have tried to do for the boy.

The last book in the quartet, Chesapeake Blue, explores Seth’s own story in adulthood. Since it would reveal much about the way things went when Seth was 10, I won’t comment too much on this one, except to say that it, too, contains a romantic relationship, and the quartet is concluded with a happily ever after for many of its subjects.

There is much to like about this series. Yes, it contains multiple clichés or tropes—the macho, muscular, and ruggedly handsome brothers and their uniformly gorgeous love interests, the sex that is always incandescent for all parties involved, the meet-cute aspect of some of the relationships—but the thing that saves it is the back stories of the brothers and their sincere (and tender) determination to help a troubled 10-year-old boy the way that they themselves were aided by their adoptive parents. The thread that holds the book together is the development and transformation of the boy Seth and the creation of a welcoming family dynamic by all the other characters. The characters are nicely defined and feel, for the most part, like real people who express genuine emotions, and the small-town vibe is painted fairly realistically, with the charming offset by gossip and insularity. Wrapping it up as Roberts did with the story of Seth as an adult, showing the vulnerable cracks that remain in anyone who has survived a background such as those of these brothers, was the perfect way to end the story.

Although I don’t know that I would continue reading Nora Roberts as a favorite author (I am not a tropes and clichés fan, unless it’s Georgette Heyer!), I definitely enjoyed this foray into her genre and style.

Dragonback

Well, the proclivity for the devouring of extensive series does wreak a little havoc with a regular reviewing schedule!

I continued reading Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series through all six books and am finally back to report that it remains a charming and well wrought story arc that will appeal to lovers of science fiction, people who like a coming-of-age story, and those who are craving the adventure, hijinks, drama, and excitement of a “space opera.”

The parts are perfectly played by the humans—Jack and Alison—and the K’da—Draycos and, latterly, Taneem. The former are clever and wily, ingenious at dodging and weaving their way through a seemingly infinite number of challenges, yet also vulnerable and with the tendency to despair that young people who haven’t quite found their feet will fall into if left entirely to their own devices. But in this story, they are not—Jack has the poet/warrior K’da riding his back like a big golden dragon tattoo, and K’da is, in addition to being strong, resourceful and a heck of a song-writer, a stable, positive role model for Jack to emulate, in contrast to Jack’s Uncle Virgil, the good-hearted but self-serving conman who raised him.

Alison’s resources are a little more mysterious at first, and we’re never quite sure of either her motives or the identity of her allies as she and Jack meet and part during this complicated plot. While the only truly obvious bad guys are the sinister Vahlagua, operators of the Death ray and enemies of the K’da, there are a lot of other combatants in this field, emerging from the wealthy class, the government, from groups of mercenaries and land- and slave-holders, all of whose interests are somewhat aligned but none of whom can be trusted, and several of whom seem too familiar with Alison! Once she teams up with the innocent but fierce Taneem, however, Alison’s aspect begins to soften slightly, and the reader obtains glimpses of who they hope she will be in amongst all the trickery, as she and Jack draw closer.

The books are: Dragon and Thief, Dragon and Soldier, Dragon and Slave, Dragon and Herdsman, Dragon and Judge, and Dragon and Liberator, with Jack playing all those roles in his quest to save the K’da. Thus, in addition to the long-term goal there are many short-term ideas pursued as part of the solution, with Jack in turn learning how to be a mercenary, coping with capture and enslavement, shepherding some innocent bystanders while attempting to remain hidden from his foes, and acting as both arbiter and liberator.

The twists and turns that set up each book are beautifully structured to further exhibit both the evolution of the human characters and their strengthening bonds of empathy with their friends, mentors, and symbionts. The strategizing sessions amongst the characters are clever and lead seamlessly to the next adventure. And although the story occasionally bogs down just a little in the details of an individual episode, the momentum never fails to pick up again and carry the characters forward towards their goals. There are also plenty of exciting scenes of battle, both personal/physical and also using their weapons and ships in space to outmaneuver the conspiracy mustered against them.

Altogether, I have seldom read a more satisfying example of story-telling that will engage its intended readers. Librarians, booksellers, and parents, put this series on your list to especially recommend to your teens ages 12-16. (Add it to the books of Anthony Horowitz and D. J. MacHale as a great alternative for reluctant boy readers.) And fantasy lovers of any age, check it out when you want something clever, fun, and action-driven to read.

NOTE: Art is by https://kaenith.tumblr.com/ ©2017.

Genre assumptions

The book I chose to read this week was the perfect example of being led into genre mislabeling by certain aspects of content. The book is Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn, part of the “Dragonback” series. Because of the presence of dragons, and also because of the series title (making it sound like people were riding on the backs of dragons), I assumed going in that this would be a fantasy. After all, dragons are mythical creatures, right? and their presence would probably indicate world-building that involves some kind of medieval setting?

I was dead wrong. The only thing I got right about this book was believing that it would be a solid addition to my list of books for middle school readers, and that I might possibly be fortunate enough to have discovered one that was particularly appealing to boys, who are more typically reluctant readers than are girls at that age.

Dragon notwithstanding, this is science fiction. The dragon is one of a race of poet/warriors (the K’da) who are symbiotic with other select species and need them in order to live. The dragons transform from three dimensions to two, and ride around on (and receive sustenance and life from) their hosts while giving the appearance of being a large and elaborate tattoo—so instead of people riding dragons, it’s the other way around. And all species involved in this book are space-faring, with much of the action taking place on ships and in spaceports and outposts on various planets.

There aren’t too many books with dragons that anyone would consider sci-fi; the dragons of Rachel Hartman, for instance, while able to shapeshift back and forth between their native shapes and human form, are set within a construct that is definitely medieval in nature, as are the conflicts explored in her books. Same with the dragons of Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Chris Paolini, Jasper Fforde, and, of course, Tolkien. Even Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, alternate history in which dragons are the steeds ridden by the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, figure more as fantasy than anything else.

The only dragon books of which I’m aware whose author has attempted to claim science fiction status are those of Anne McCaffrey. Since these are telepathic fire-breathing dragons that bond for life with their riders, many have scoffed at McCaffrey’s claims. Her rationale for the premise is that mankind travelled to the planet Pern via rocket ships, only to discover that their new home was beset by deadly spores that traveled from a red planet to theirs in irregular cycles that lasted a decade or two every once in a while; they used their science to take the native fauna they called fire lizards (miniature dragons about the length of a forearm) and super-size them through selective breeding to wipe out the spores by breathing fire on them. (Her premise would be a lot more believable if she had also thought to use science to explain how these spores from the red star survive the unbearable heat of entry into the planetary system only to be destroyed by a simple toasty breath!)

Anyway, back to my middle school series. Zahn’s voice is perfect for his protagonist, who is a 14-year-old thief named Jack. Jack’s parents died when he was little, and his uncle Virgil, an interstellar conman, raised him to be an innocent-looking but precocious assistant for his various illegal exploits, so Jack has lots of talents like breaking and entering, computer program manipulation, and being a quick-thinking fast-talker. But his uncle died a little while back, leaving Jack alone except for the computer that runs Jack’s ship, upon which Uncle Virgil imposed his personality, so that “Uncle Virge” is still in some sense with Jack, imbued with the same sly, evasive, self-serving qualities that his human uncle possessed.

Uncle Virge is unhappy, therefore, when Jack decides to rescue and play host to Draycos, one of an advance team of K’da warriors who landed on a supposedly vacant planet where his people were intending to settle, refugees hiding out from their mortal enemies. Somehow their enemies already knew their destination, however, and managed to destroy all the advance ships and everyone on them save Draycos. Draycos has a few months to figure out what happened and from where, exactly, the threat lies, so that he can return to the main emigration ships of his people and re-route them somewhere safe, and Jack has undertaken to help him.

It turns out, however, that Draycos is at least as helpful to Jack as Jack is to Draycos, given his superb warrior skills. The two of them make a good team—the boy with lots of undercover experience to get them where they want to go with no one the wiser, and the dragon, honorable and principled, who can protect them along the way.

I finished book #1 and proceeded on to the second, Dragon and Soldier, and I plan to keep going with the rest of the series. So far, book #2 is as imaginative and delightful as was the first, my sole complaint being that each book ends rather abruptly so that you feel an immediate need to access the next volume, which is actually a decided advantage when it comes to luring the reluctant reader to keep going. I believe that those middle-schoolers (and anyone who loves science fiction and/or dragons) who discover these books will do just that.

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.

Tragic

I opened All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, with no knowledge and few expectations except those provoked by the prescient title. By the end of the book I was insulted on behalf of the author by those book blurbs praising her for a wonderful debut; this was a wonderful book, regardless if it was her first or her 30th. It was also ugly.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, because it was such an anguished kind of pleasure to discover it as it went along. It is a truly unique (and I don’t use that word casually) coming-of-age tale about a child who has not one advantage and many crippling obstacles in life and somehow, as some rare children do, manages to survive and to eke out an existence with happy moments in it despite everything.

Wavonna, known as Wavy, is the daughter of a violent, abusive, sexually prolific meth dealer and his drugged-out, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive wife. Neither of them has had a single regard for her since the day she was born, and in fact the idiosyncrasies of her personality that have resulted from ill treatment have caused her father to avoid her company. Wavy rarely speaks; she won’t eat in front of others; and she actively dislikes being touched in any way. At eight years old she trusts no one, depends on no one, owns nothing, and is struggling on her own to raise her baby brother, as the only “responsible adult” in the family.

Then she meets Kellen, a gruff young man who does occasional work for her father between his stints as a mechanic, and the two recognize one another’s blank spots. Kellen is appalled by the level of neglect surrounding this little girl, and starts stepping up to help her, from twin motives of compassion and loneliness. He registers her for school and takes her back and forth on his motorcycle; he brings groceries; he washes dishes; but more than these practical deeds, he offers Wavy both friendship and respect. In return, she sees him for who he is, rather than judging him by the story some of his bad deeds tell about him, and gives him the love and attention that have been missing from his life—and hers.

This is where the story hits a controversial twist, and it is a testament to your flexibility and understanding whether you continue to follow it with empathy or slam it shut with swift condemnation.

The best thing about this book is its unsentimental storytelling. It is a dark portrayal of abuse and dysfunction, yet it neither dramatizes nor trivializes any of it—it’s not manipulative. The reader is allowed to come to the material on her own terms and react to it with sadness, outrage, disgust, compassion, whatever emotion that emerges. Somehow this author is able to write a beautiful story about ugly events and still allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

The book is told from multiple perspectives—I believe there are 16—including chapters narrated by Wavy’s brother, her aunt, her cousin, the sheriff, a judge, a teacher, and of course by Wavy and Kellen themselves. I don’t ordinarily care for books split into so many viewpoints, but in this case it works brilliantly as a reflection of all the possible opinions about these two that might come up, depending upon your perspective. And all of the characters are distinctive and beautifully drawn.

Wavy’s story is stark, controversial, emotional, and unsettling. It’s in-your-face explicit in its descriptions, and will probably leave you feeling conflicted and uneasy, maybe outraged. It’s also some of the finest story-telling I have read in a long, long time. It won’t be for everyone; but if you resonate with a tale about raw human emotion, heartbreak, and resilience, it will continue to echo in your mind as it does in mine.

Note: It’s also well worth reading the author’s comments about content and choices at the end of the book.

The birthday of the world

…is the title of one of Ursula K. LeGuin‘s short stories, and today is (or would have been) Ursula Kroeber LeGuin’s 91st birthday (she passed away in 2018 at age 88). I am moved to talk a little about her legacy on this significant date because she is one of my favorite authors and has had a profound affect on both my reading tastes and general philosophy over the decades since I began devouring her stories, novels, essays, and writing manuals.

LeGuin was the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her fantasy and science fiction, going on after that to win seven more Hugos, five more Nebulas, and 22 Locus Awards. In 2003 she was honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, after a controversial career in which she defied many of the traditions of this organization and its members.

She was perhaps best known for her fantasy series about the land of Earthsea, which embraces the theme of equilibrium in a coming-of-age saga, and for her extremely forward-looking book about gender and identity, The Left Hand of Darkness; but she wrote more than 20 novels and 100+ short stories, as well as poetry, essays, translations, literary criticism, and children’s books. Prominent social and political themes ran through most of these, including race, gender, sexuality, and political/social structure, and her named influences were varied: cultural anthropology, Taoism (she made her own translation of the Tao Te Ching), feminism, and the work of Carl Jung.

Some of the seminal ideas in her books include the concepts of equilibrium or balance, the reconciliation of opposites, and the necessity for leaving things alone, exploring sociology, psychology, and philosophy through her characters’ experiences. Likewise her writer’s voice was distinct, using unconventional narrative forms. Literary critic Harold Bloom described Le Guin as an “exquisite stylist,” saying that in her writing, “Every word was exactly in place and every sentence or line had resonance.” According to Bloom, Le Guin was…

…a visionary who set herself against all brutality, discrimination, and exploitation.

Harold Bloom

If you are unfamiliar with her writing, I urge you to seek it out. I have probably read the original three of the Earthsea trilogy half a dozen times (and the subsequent sequels at least thrice), and I re-read her book The Dispossessed, a moving personal treatise on anarchy and utopia, at least once a decade. Her Hainish novels are delightfully engaging story-telling, and the last one, The Telling, was the catalyst that sent me off to library school in my late 40s. Her short stories, mainstream fiction, and poetry are likewise intriguing, and as an essayist she can’t be topped. Introduce yourself to her books, or recall the ones you remember fondly and revisit them as a tribute to a giant of literature with, as author Michael Chabon wrote after her death…

the power of an unfettered imagination.”

michael chabon

A boy and his dog

I seem to be gravitating lately towards coming-of-age stories about boys and their dogs (see The Story of Edgar Sawtelle), but although it is, in fact, a coming-of-age story, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher, is a special one, being as well a post-apocalyptic saga. I am a sucker for dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction; I don’t know exactly what draws me, but I think it is, as the character Griz says about his own liking for these books, that “it’s interesting to see what the Before thought the After would be like.”

This is an unusual sample of the genre, since there was no bomb, no pandemic, no big catastrophe—just a slow dwindling of fertility (speculatively attributed to pesticides, food additives and pollution) until humanity arrived at the Baby Bust generation, whose members got older but didn’t reproduce (except for about .0001 percent), and as the people died out, nature slowly began to take over. Griz’s family are among that infinitesimally small percentage, Griz’s parents having given birth to four children. The family has isolated itself in the Outer Hebrides, on one of a series of islands off the coast of Scotland, and lives a careful life, coming in contact with only one other family (who live on another island)—one of whose sons will presumably eventually marry their daughter. They take judicious foraging trips to the mostly empty mainland to acquire the things they are unable to build, so that they have a couple of sailboats, a windmill for power, some miscellaneous tools and weapons, and a fair number of books—nonfiction how-to in the case of the father, and fiction/escape in the case of Griz, who is something of a bookworm. They call these foraging trips “viking,” turning the noun into a verb. They also have several dogs (also a rarity in terms of fertility), two of which (Jip and Jess) are Griz’s.

One day they spot red sails on the horizon, and a stranger comes to visit—a man named Brand, who brags about his extensive travels to other exotic shores and who has both necessities and wonders to trade. The family treats him with a healthy dose of suspicion, but his engaging manner and the tall tales he shares over dinner soon has them more at their ease. Next morning, however, Brand’s sailboat is seen fleeing over the horizon, and he has taken Griz’s dog Jess with him. Griz, in a rage, grabs some basic supplies and jumps in his own boat to follow. No one is stealing his dog. This is the set-up for all the adventure and discoveries to come.

The world-building in this book seems both inventive and inevitable, with the author knowing just what would happen to a world without people. The huge, nearly empty environs are beautifully depicted, with the overtones of the tragedy of the past subsumed into the matter-of-fact acknowledgment of present-day details. The voice is appealing—Griz is an endearing combination of knowledgeable and innocent, relying on what he has been told but also able to take in new information, process it, and find inventive ways to use it. And despite a difficult and challenging journey, he remains doggedly optimistic (pardon the pun). The prose is simple, beautiful, and full of meaningful observations. There is a lot of content packed into this fairly short book by the time you take into account the back story, current events, musings, and action sequences. It also keeps you moving because you get the occasional ominous hint of things to come, which I normally find irritating but didn’t mind here because of the format of the book (it’s written as a journal, partially after the fact).

The bottom line: I’m just going to say it without reservation—I loved this book! I think it would appeal to anyone who enjoys this genre of fiction, whether (older) teen or adult, and perhaps even those who don’t normally read the genre, because of its inventiveness and the headlong manner of its story-telling. It’s completely self-contained, but I would definitely not say no to a sequel! The potential is there…

Grace

I have just finished reading William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. it’s so interesting to me how different is the voice between his two coming-of-age tales—this and This Tender Land—and his Cork O’Connor mysteries, of which I have read half a dozen now. The titles reveal all you need to know about the former, because his perspective and his writing are both tender and graceful as he looks back over life events big and small in the early 20th Century in which he sets them—This Tender Land in the depths of the Depression, and Ordinary Grace in the rapidly changing world of the 1960s. While I am not disparaging his mystery series—I enjoyed some books more than others, but none was either poorly conceived or written—I feel like his true gift lies with this obviously more personal look at boys of a certain age and how they meet the challenges they encounter as they move towards adulthood.

The main character in Ordinary Grace is Frank Drum, a 13-year-old boy growing up in a small town in Minnesota in 1961. He has an older sister, Ariel, who is aiming for a place at Juilliard (she is a musician as well as a composer), a younger brother, Jake, who stutters, and two parents who, while they love each other and their children, seem to be on different trajectories when it comes to finding satisfaction in life. As the book progresses, a series of tragedies are visited upon the town, some specifically on Frank’s family, and we see how each of these people, as well as other key characters in their orbit, reacts to the events of that year.

While I am always and forever a bit uncomfortable when someone chooses to explore the role of religion in these kinds of events, I have to say that Krueger doesn’t unduly intrude his own beliefs (whatever they are), but provides a nice array of contrasts when it comes to this subject. In Ordinary Grace, the protagonist’s father is a Methodist minister with a deep and all-encompassing faith partially born out of his experiences in World War II, while his mother—even though she does her wifely duty, attending services and leading the choir—feels somewhat betrayed that he didn’t become the lawyer he was planning to be when she met him, and is impatient with the constant expression of his beliefs. And the children are able to begin to come to their own conclusions, based on what they observe in their parents, in their friends, in the world, and in the events of their lives. Nathan, the preacher, comes across alternately as the hero and the fool for his consistent faith, while others in the book similarly go back and forth between seeming either pragmatic or shallow based on their own sentiments. I really liked that Krueger let his characters—and his readers—work things out for themselves.

I loved the easy, gentle pace of the book—at one point two of the characters discuss how a railroad track is like a river, because it’s there but it’s also constantly moving somewhere else—and I felt this to be a good analogy for the telling of this story. The characters are all well fleshed out and present themselves as individuals, and the language is beautifully lyrical in its descriptions of nature as experienced by the narrator. The only flaw I found is that someone (presumably not the author, since this was not the case in any of his other books) went through and excised a whole slew of necessary commas (maybe three-quarters of them?), including the ones that would have set off dependent clauses in their sentences. It was disconcerting to read, and I found my editor’s brain silently inserting each one as I went, sometimes making it hard to be present in the story.

I became impatient with the story line at one point, because I didn’t quite understand what the book was supposed to achieve. When one of the characters dies in mysterious circumstances, it seems like the purpose of the book is to figure out why, how, and by whose hand, but since I was pretty sure from about halfway through about both the issue of whose fault it was and which person acted to end things, I initially felt cheated that the author hadn’t made a better mystery out of it. Then, as I continued to read, I gradually realized that the book wasn’t about the mystery at all, but rather about how each character in his or her diversity would react to the truth of what happened.

This is a beautiful exploration of life, death, brotherhood, friendship, family, and community, and ultimately a commentary on the painful acquisition of wisdom and also on the nature of grace, whether it’s being considered as something granted by a supreme deity or given or withheld by the humans around us in times of crisis and loss. Even though it is framed in religious terms, for me the concept of grace in the novel was vastly wider, encompassing the ideas of tolerance, empathy, and respect. And I don’t want to give away the specifics, but when the moment finally comes when you find out where the title of the book came from, it’s different from what you expected, and delightful (or at least I found it so).

The final lines of the novel are both simple and profound enough that they deserve to be immortalized in the same way that we remember “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” as the first line of Rebecca, or “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” as the beginning of David Copperfield. I wouldn’t dream of revealing them here, but do read the book and discover them for yourself.