Middle Grade Reading Challenge

It’s been a busy winter, but now I have time to blog about books again! I’ve joined MG Book Village’s middle grade book celebration this month. Every day in March, I’m going to post here and on twitter about a MG book that fits the day’s category. Please join in the fun!

ImageHere are my picks so far. As always, I’ll be focusing on books with a diversity angle.

Day 1 (March 1) Books that feature travel or a journey: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, featuring a young refugee girl’s journey from Pakistan to India in 1947.

2. Deals with mental illness: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf. Set in Malaysia, featuring a teen protagonist  with OCD.

3. Want to read but still haven’t: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. What can I say?

4. Audiobook people should read: So…I’ve never ever heard an audiobook. But the obvious answer is a graphic novel, I’d think?

5. New release you are anticipating: Since I didn’t answer yesterday’s question, I’ll over-compensate now. I can’t wait for Three Keys, Kelly Yang’s sequel to the wonderful Front Desk. I’m also keen to read Quintessence by Jess Redman. And I’m totally waiting for Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi. 

6. Book that had an unexpected twist: The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. Everything about this book gave me the feels, but the twist at the end was simply outstanding.

7. LGBTQIAP representation: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. Such a clear-eyed, unflinching look at racism and homophobia and systemic inequality. TPI is about family, adventure, courage, and the hopefulness of being young. It’s also a great page-turner!

8. Non-fiction Book: The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. Lovely story of a boy from Malawi who hacks a windmill to provide electricity to his village.

9. Shout out to your library: I love California’s public library system. My county lets us request books from all over the Bay Area, for free!

10. New Author for you: I discovered Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor last year, and have re-read it twice already. It’s become one of my go-to comfort reads.

11. Current Shelfie: It’s all ebooks right now. No library visits with our lockdown!

12. Book you wish existed: This one has me stumped. We live in a rich MGlit world right now!

13. Book that needs more love: The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. An Indian American girl from Maryland moves to small-town India, where she meets her favorite Bollywood star. Such a gentle, funny, wise book!

14. Your most reread/loved book: An impossible challenge, to pick just one! But…I’m going with Calvin and Hobbes. Endless joy with every reread.

15. Satisfying series ending book: I love The Other Wind, the last book of The Earthsea series by the incomparable Ursula Le Guin.

16. Shoutout to your indie store: I love Pegasus Books and Moe’s Books, both in Berkeley.

17. Book published in your country: A very ambiguous tag for those of us who have multiple country affiliations. I’ll go with the place I grew up, and pick Malgudi Days by R.K.Narayan.

18. Book out of your comfort zone: I’m picking a novel that’s a prose poem: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Splendid, triumphant, edgy story of a young Vietnamese refugee girls’s struggle to adapt to Alabama.

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I’ll add to this post daily.  Please participate if you are on Twitter and help readers discover great new MG books! Don’t forget to post your recommendations with the tag ##MGBookMarch

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

John at The Book Mine Set has asked bloggers to review Canadian books with a Japanese connection; if more than 10 books are reviewed this month, he’ll donate $200 to the Red Cross for their Japan earthquake relief efforts.

Skim is a graphic novel featuring Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim), a sixteen-year-old navigating the high school jungle with a characteristic mix of apathy and intensity.  Skim is half-Asian, chubby,  interested in the occult arts, and believes that her school is a “goldfish tank of stupid”. As you’ve probably guessed by now, she has few friends. But things shake up in school when a popular girl’s boyfriend commits suicide (perhaps because he was gay), and when Skim finds herself attracted to Ms. Archer, the new English teacher. As Skim slouches to adulthood, she learns that high school’s hothouse friendships can bloom and wither overnight, that adults aren’t always to be relied upon, and that love is a confusing but splendiferous thing. I want to congratulate Skim; I was way past sixteen when I realized this stuff.

The graphic novel format demands brevity, and if Mariko Tamaki nails Skim’s internal life as much with what she says as what she leaves out,  Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations  perfectly balance the absences in this story–odd angles and open spaces reinforce Skim’s isolation and loneliness.  I don’t have the technical vocabulary to describe the artwork, but damn, even my neophyte gaze can tell that the illustrations advance the story rather than just illuminating it. And for all the intimacy of the narrative (the story is framed around Skim’s diary entries), the novel also reads as a comment on the bigger issues of our time, including racism, girl-on-girl meanness, and homophobia.

Note: Skim resurrected my adolescent memories from their too-shallow grave, and I had to read me some Twilight to re-inter them.  Consider yourselves warned. And oh, if you read my previous post, you can see the sketch that Jillian Tamaki drew on the flyleaf of my copy of Skim.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Groundwood Books, 2008

A Woman’s Agenda by Karen Helm

It’s that time of the year when you turn a new page, start afresh, begin a new chapter…I am, of course, talking about diaries and calendars.

Back in my corporate life  I used the Time Manager to plan my workday. The corporation gave this agenda to all its management employees; I was young enough to be gratified by such accouterments.  The Time Manager consisted of the “binder, dividers, a box with approx. a year’s supply of forms including dated plans for the current year, a pen/pencil, and a user guide.” It looked like this, except mine was in black leather.

This one costs $255.76. Seriously. Follow the link.

Now that I’m self-employed (oh how I miss you, corporate expense account), and now that my interests have shifted from money to literature and women’s rights and race and immigration (wait! I still like money!), this agenda seems excessive, not to mention unaffordable.  An interesting alternative appeared in my mailbox not long ago–A Woman’s Agenda, published by Second Story Press, a feminist publishing house in Toronto.

Yes, instant love. And this one is priced at $14.85.

A Woman’s Agenda consists of a spiral-bound binder, and, uh, paper. The layout is pretty roomy, with 3 weekdays per page; the weekends get a little less space. There’s place for note-taking, and a chunk of pages for addresses and phone numbers. All pretty standard; the interesting stuff is the lunar calendar (useful for werewolves and menstruating women!) and the woman-specific material. No, the agenda doesn’t tell us to go in for regular Pap Smears or to cap the lip-balm tight before tossing it into the handbag, useful as those reminders would be. A Woman’s Agenda features twelve stories of kick-ass women from all over the world–January is Aung San Suu Kyi, February is black US congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, March is Canadian hockey heroine Cassie Campbell, April is Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, and so on. Each month begins with a new story, and the weekends showcase quotes from the featured person. The women are all spectacular, each with a strong story to tell, and the narrative concentrates on the facts without sentimentalization.

What I like best about this agenda is its arrangement. A Woman’s Agenda insinuates the good stuff into our chore-ridden lives without interrupting the flow of the calendar.  We sometimes get sucked into the daily routine without ever surfacing for deeper contemplation–it takes real effort to shrug off duty and think of what’s important than what’s urgent. By juxtaposing the struggles and achievements of these women next to our daily plans, this agenda nudges us to weigh our priorities, and to be grateful for the stuff that works. Family. Books. Friends. A back that lets me shovel snow. Books. Central heating. Books.

I was, however, a bit bewildered while looking for a match between month and story. The choices seem mostly arbitrary; wouldn’t it be so much more satisfying to make  a connection between the person and the month? For instance, February is Black History Month, and the choice of Shirley Chisholm is meaningful in this context. But the agenda mentions that May is Asian Heritage Month, and then features  Dr. Cornelia Wieman, an Aboriginal psychiatrist. And June (the month National Aboriginal Day is celebrated in Canada) features Zaha Hadid, the Iraq-born, London-based architect.  An unforced organic fit between the chosen women and the events on the calendar could have been beautifully engineered had someone spent an extra five minutes.  Ah, well, perhaps it’s on the agenda for 2012.

Despite my quibbling, I recommend this agenda wholeheartedly. You can order it off the Second Story Press website; I doubt the mainstream outlets will make space amongst their Time Manager clones for this one.

The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj

The Caribbean town of Marasaw is home to young Navi and Neela, whose mother must leave to find employment in the West—as a child minder. That bleak irony sets the tone for Toronto-based Andrea Gunraj’s promising novel The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha.

Brother and sister grow up competing for attention under their grandmother’s care, longing to escape each other and Marasaw. While math prodigy Navi wins an academic scholarship, Neela spurns family and her friends to elope with local bad boy Jaroon to a tourist resort “Eden” in the rainforest.

The Caribbean is considered a tourist paradise, but, asks Gunraj,  what is the cost to the locals? Eden proves anything but idyllic, for corruption breeds at the heart of the  enterprise. Neela, who planned to be a school teacher, discovers that the school building comprises four sticks on a concrete slab, that she won’t be paid for her work, and that there’s no going back to Marasaw. Inevitably, Jaroon prospers amidst such lawlessness, and an isolated Neela begins to face his abuse. Gunraj searingly describes the  powerlessness and humiliation experienced by victims of domestic violence; Neela, slapped by Jaroon, feels thrust into “that clumsy, in-between condition of part-child, part woman, foolish and slighted and put in her place.

When Jaroon spirits away their baby daughter Seetha, Neela must look for help to the family and friends she’d discarded. The search for Seetha provides the note of suspense in this story.

Gunraj, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Guyana, deals with (other) weighty themes (including racism and the bitter after-taste of colonialism)  in this layered tale, but the most intriguing aspect for me was Neela’s mysterious magic. Neela has a gift, passed down the maternal line, which enables her to influence events as she desires. This power however deserts her when she moves to Eden. Gunraj provides no explanation for this loss; and my guess is that Neela’s thoughtlessness in abandoning her family and friends killed her abilities, for this sort of power must come from a place of goodness and positivity if it is to flourish. And if my solution doesn’t quite cut it for you, well, this rich text gives you plenty to form an alternate theory. Gunraj is one of Knopf’s “New Faces of Fiction” for 2009; well chosen, I say!

(A slightly modified version of this piece appears in Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine.)

The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj

Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009

Literary fiction

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Planning a prequel or sequel to classic works by now-dead authors should bring drops of blood to the writer’s brow. Crafting a plot is fairly easy, but writing in the spirit of the original is virtually impossible. How much ought the new author’s voice inform the piece?  Too much, and the work is no longer faithful to the original creation; too little, and it’s fan fiction. Furthermore, a strong character often becomes a caricature in a sequel, reduced to easily recognized traits and mannerisms, with little further character development.

Before Green Gables was written in 2008 to commemorate the centennial of  a Canadian classic–L.M.Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, featuring the adventures of Anne Shirley, a red-haired orphan girl of unusual spirit and imagination.  Before Green Gables chronicles Anne’s years in Nova Scotia before her departure for Prince Edward Island (and Green Gables).  I couldn’t help but wonder at the chutzpah of a writer who takes on a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s books ever, but now that I’ve read it, I doff my toque to Budge Wilson.  The basic plot outlines have of course been laid out by Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables, but Wilson has immersed herself in Anne-lore and the period, and the result is  an adroitly fashioned, utterly convincing tale. Every sentence spoken by Anne could have been written by Montgomery–there isn’t a single false note in this work.

Before Green Gables begins with Walter and Bertha Shirley’s anticipation of their child’s arrival. Within a tenth of the book, they are dead and the three-month old Anne consigned to the dubious care of the Shirleys’ domestic help, Mrs. Thomas. The household consists of a drunkard father and three (to become seven) children. If Anne’s lot seems unutterably bleak, it soon gets worse–upon the death of Mr. Thomas, Anne is packed off to assist Mrs. Hammond, a mother of six (including two sets of twins), and soon to give birth to yet more twins. This MG book is a stronger argument for birth control than many carefully researched non-fictional works on the topic.

Before Green Gables feels careful-verging-on-unadventurous, but it is satisfyingly done; not one of Anne’s references to her tragical past in AoGG has been missed, from her experience with croup to Lily Jones of the nut-brown hair. If you know the series well, there’s much pleasure gained in playing spot the references. And if  Wilson makes her Anne extraordinarily precocious–walking at eight months,  noting before her third birthday that the name Maurice sounds like a “smooth-running river” , and before her sixth birthday, coaching Mr. Thomas on the secret to finding serenity–I can forgive her the indulgence.

The only real issue I had with  Before Green Gables is its unremitting misery. There isn’t a single funny episode here, nothing to raise the barest chuckle. Anne does find little joys–a good teacher, the accidental gift of a dictionary–but these are valiant victories, pathetic as much in their smallness as in their disproportionate value to Anne. Yes, the context of Anne’s unhappiness in her early years is important to highlight her joy in finally belonging to Green Gables and to Marilla and Mathew. But Montgomery always found pleasure in the ridiculous, even when the scenario was desolate. Look at The Blue Castle, where the heroine, dying of heart disease, decides to cock a snook at convention and start speaking her (decidedly rude) mind to her overbearing family. I’m no Montgomery expert, but I felt that  Wilson didn’t quite capture Montgomery’s philosophy–that in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak, when the big things seem hopelessly wrong, escape lies not just in imagination but also in humor. I like Anne of Nova Scotia, oh I do, but she doesn’t quite have the magic or laughter of Anne of Green Gables.

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Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Puffin Canada, 2008

Genre: MG/YA fiction

If you like all things Anne, you may also be interested in my review of L.M.Montgomery’s The Blythes are Quoted, which, for reasons I do not understand, is one of my top posts on this blog.

Canadian Book Challenge #4

I’m not a big fan of blog challenges–they are sometimes a bit frantic, and reading is, or should be, a slow pleasure.  But I’ve signed up for a couple this year for causes I believe in, like the Person of Color challenge.  I’m also signing up for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge–to  read and review thirteen books by Canadian authors over the next twelve months. I’d signed up for the first challenge, and I discovered a couple of terrific Canadian authors in the process–Alistair Macleod, for one, and Joy Kogawa. (I also read some purveyors of deadly boring CanLit, but the law of averages made that inevitable). If you are interested in Canadian writing, do check out this one at The Book Mine Set.

This challenge, I’m shooting for thirteen different genres of books–mystery, YA, picture book, memoir and so on. (I’m defining genre very loosely.) Books I’ve read thus far for the challenge:
1. 500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill (Graphic novel)
2. How it all Vegan by Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard (Cookbook)

2 books by mid-July! If things keep up, I will turn into one of those bloggers who comments regularly and tracks feed subscribers and maintains a blogroll. You know, a real one.

Christian the Hugging Lion

When Ace and John saw a lonesome-looking lion cub for sale at Harrods, they decided to take him home. (It was the sixties; ’nuff said.)  The cub, Christian, turned out to be a fun-loving, cuddly cat with a penchant for hugging his friends.

But Christian started getting bigger, and soon, the London flat he lived in and the church graveyard he played in weren’t wide-open-spacey enough for a lion.  So Ace and John (who are so noble and good-looking that it hurts) decided to take Christian where he’d be happiest–home to Kenya.  Christian succeeded in transitioning from domesticity to living in the wild.

Christian, the Hugging Lion

All of this is true.  Also true: when Ace and John returned to Kenya a year later to see how Christian was doing, the now-wild lion launched himself at the duo–and proceeded to hug them to bits (metaphorically speaking, that is).

The film of their reunion apparently “became a  worldwide internet sensation” that I seem to have missed entirely. But You Tube gave me this:

If this didn’t make you smile, you’re officially creepy. And probably dead.

Many versions of this story have made the rounds–there’s the 1971 book A Lion Called Christian by Ace and John, and there’s apparently a film in the works too. I read the picture book Christian the Hugging Lion by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, who previously authored And Tango Makes Three, a picture book about the two male penguins who successfully hatched an egg. You may remember homophobes  getting all mad about happy animals in a loving relationship?  And Tango… was apparently the most challenged book of 2006, 2007, and 2008, as well  the most banned book of 2009.

Christian… doesn’t seem to have attracted the same ire, probably because it’s never explicitly mentioned if Ace and John are in a relationship. But we are told that “the three of them  became the most unusual family in London”, and we can make of that what we will. It’s partly because of this open-endedness that I liked this book so much.  It seems obvious that the bond of family doesn’t depend on gender or age or sexual orientation or even species, but it’s a truth worth repeating over and over, and the book’s depiction of the trio’s life makes the point with subtlety and grace.  And the illustrations are lovely; I would gladly frame them for my living room wall.

I have to say, though, that I liked this book more than my just-turned-three son did–he wasn’t taken by the artwork (no primary colors here, just rich autumn shades) or the story (the switch between present and future, and England and Kenya was too complex). The book is targeted at 4-8 though, so I think he’ll grow into it.

Christian went on to meet a nice mate (or two) and fathered lots of cute cubs . Hopefully, they all lived happily ever after.

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I’m writing this review to mark Pride Week in Toronto, which began on  25 June. This one also counts towards the GLBT challenge.

Christian the Hugging Lion by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

Simon and Schuster, 2010

Genre: Picture Book

Miss Marple’s cleverer sister

A sad, sad, day six years ago, I finished reading everything Agatha Christie had published. Yes, even the Mary Westmacott weepies. Just as I resigned myself to  hanging around her grave waiting for a miracle, I discovered Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries.

book cover of   The Case of William Smith    (Miss Silver)  by  Patricia Wentworth

The Case of William Smith

It’s soon after WWII when we meet William Smith, second-in-command at Tattlecombe’s Toy Bazaar in London. Although William seems perfectly ordinary, down to his commonplace name, he suffers from amnesia. Life before 1942, when he woke up in a German hospital with a head wound, is a blank. William has, however, managed to pull it together. He carves quirky wooden animals for the toy shop, has scraped together the funds to buy a car, and is now in love with the new shop assistant, Katherine, who is beautiful and gentle and willing.

Then, an attempt is made on William’s life, and the only reason can be William’s missing past. Katherine decides to consult Miss Silver.

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A retired governess turned private investigator, Miss Maud Silver  is first a lady, at least by her own definition, and then a detective. More British than a Beefeater’s elevenses, Miss Silver dresses drably, believes in breeding and restraint and God and King and good old-fashioned classism. She is clever, oh, preternaturally so, to the extent some police friends believe she hides her broomstick in the hall closet.

Miss Silver is most often compared to Christie’s Miss Marple–both are elderly unmarried British women whose innocuous appearance helps them gather information when more flamboyant characters might fail. But unlike Miss Marple, Miss Silver is a professional.  And while Miss Marple is shrewd, Miss Silver possesses a profound intelligence that her clients often find unsettling; Katherine, for instance, “feels the kind of panic which comes in dreams when you find yourself naked among the clothed.” Yes, Miss Silver could probably rotate a 3X3 matrix in her head while casting off stitches for a woolly jumper.

Tempering Miss Silver’s acuity is her sympathy for her clients. It’s a tad strained, reserved for those fulfilling Miss Silver’s ideas of morality and good behavior, but it’s there, and thank goodness for it, for I wouldn’t like these books as much otherwise.

Furthermore, while Miss Marple plays a lone hand, keeping everyone (including the reader) guessing till the end, Miss Silver works with her protagonists to solve the mystery, and we follow her thought process and actions through the story. Miss Marple’s modus operandi, in essence, is to draw a parallel with some village event—a murdered cabinet minister reminds her of the ne’er-do-well nephew of the fishmonger, and presto! she deduces the identity of the killer. Miss Silver relies on inductive reasoning; presented with a set of facts, she can isolate the possible outcomes with great precision. The suspense in a Wentworth isn’t as much to do with the crime already committed as with the one yet to take place–it’s important to find William Smith’s identity (and that of his would-be assassin) so as to prevent the next attempt on William’s life from succeeding. And to make sure William and Katherine live happily ever after. Every Miss Silver mystery has at its heart a romantic couple (not a romance necessarily). This couple must and will unite; under no circumstances will either party die or prove to be a villain, and if a crime was committed by either, it will have been in ignorance, and with no lasting ill-effects. (Such foreknowledge about the end has never diminished my enjoyment of the books–the romance triumphant is as much part of the series as Miss Silver’s velvet coatee, or the creepy brooch with the hair of her grandparents).

The chief issue I have with Wentworth is her all-too-evident dislike of ambitious women. Her heroines aren’t weak—most exhibit immense strength of character, toil without complaint, and show great loyalty to their loved ones—but they do not prize independence or success. A woman who deliberately plots  to advance her social/financial position through marriage or professional achievement is considered a dangerous unsettling force in Wentworth’s universe, for her ambition usually twists her femininity into something unwholesome.  While Miss Silver is indeed a professional, she is in it to serve Truth and Justice, and definitely not for the money, and you know she’s rather go hatless than advertise.  Modern-day readers who are impatient with such biases may find Wentworth’s heroines hard to digest. And the heroes are of course all tall dominating providers, but you’ve guessed that by now.

Wentworth’s prose, while lacking the depth and beauty of say, a late Sayers, is unfussy and clean, and does the job satisfactorily. Her plots aren’t as ingenious as Christie at her peak, and are sometimes overburdened with tedious detail, but keep me turning the pages.  I’ll stop the faint praise here to assert that the appeal of a Miss Silver mystery chiefly lies in Miss Silver. To watch that mind at work, to savor her critics’ reaction turn from scorn to fear, to smile over the small details of her physical appearance, to startle at and then appreciate her rare wit—these are the reasons I read these books over and over. Miss Silver is an institution, and somewhat to my own surprise, one I’ve grown fond of. And, if I might presume to guess, so might you.

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Note: Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 Miss Silver mysteries, starting with Grey Mask (1928). There is very little information about her on the net;  a rather threadbare account of her life may be found at Wikipedia.

This post is my contribution to The Golden Age of Detective Fiction blog tour.

The Last River Child by Lori Ann Bloomfield

Last River ChildThis debut novel by Toronto writer Lori Ann Bloomfield offers many riches: a vivid potted history of Canada in the time surrounding WWI, a nicely detailed account of small town life in rural Ontario, plus a rousing reminder of why the women’s movement was necessary in the first place.

A river child is an evil spirit that lives in a river, waiting to drown children in order to assume their shape and then live on land. The river child brings bad luck, withering crops and killing farm animals. Or so the inhabitants of the small village of Walvern in Ontario, Canada believe.  

The arrival of a meteorite during Peg’s baptism, combined with the fact of her pale eyes and her habit of walking by the river soon make the villagers suspect that Peg is indeed the dreaded spirit. Crazy stuff, yes, but not back in the early nineteen hundreds, when religion and superstition were inextricably knotted together, and not in rural Ontario, where the failure of one crop could result in permanent tragedy for a family. 

As is usually the case, enough coincidences occur to rapidly cement the belief amongst  the villagers that Peg is a river child. But despite being a social outcast, Peg grows up loving Walvern, even as her sister Sarah longs to get away to the big city. It takes nothing less than a World War to shake the good villagers out of their silliness and superstitions.   

Apart from a too-tidy ending for my taste, this novel is finely shaped and paced, and very readable indeed.  But Bloomfield at times pulls her punches—the story doesn’t quite deliver the emotional goods the outline suggests, mostly because the adult Peg’s internal life isn’t realized deeply enough.  (The first part of the novel, which deals with the young Peg and her mother, is near perfect). Bloomfield holds back when she should burrow her way into her protagonist’s heart, with the result that I didn’t care for Peg as passionately as I might have.  For instance, (SEMI-SPOILER WARNING!) when Sarah runs away to Toronto leaving Peg to manage the farm single-handedly, Peg is “consumed by rage” at Sarah’s selfishness. “Beneath the rage, determination began to glow, forged in the heat of her fury. A plan started to form in her mind. She only needed to feed herself and a few of the animals.”  The thrill of evoked emotion is mild with this sort of writing.  The bottom line: The Last River Child is a promising debut, definitely good if not great.  

PS: This book is published by a lovely little feminist publishing house  Second Story Press. Do check out their site, for their other offerings look pretty interesting too.

The Blythes are Quoted by L.M.Montgomery

A new collection featuring Anne of Green Gables has just been published, and redheads all over the world (not to mention the Japanese) are celebrating. But “new” is somewhat misleading–all but one of the stories in The Blythes are Quoted appear (in slightly abbreviated form) in 1974’s The Road to Yesterday. (Note: TRtY was published after Montgomery’s death as well.)

The background: Benjamin Lefebvre came across Montgomery’s original typescript of TBaQ, and realized it contained several never-published poems and Blythe family vignettes, as well as the unedited versions of the stories in TRtY. TBaQ was also far bleaker in its approach to war than Montgomery’s earlier writing. Believing that the manuscript “could change the way readers perceived the author and her work”, Lefebvre gives us “as close a reproduction of Montgomery’s [original] text as possible.”

Let’s cut to the chase: should you pay $25 plus tax for this book?

TBaQ boasts one story that was not included in TRtY. Titled “Some Fools and a Saint”, this one isn’t amongst Montgomery’s stronger efforts–I found it both tedious and unconvincing. (Warning: this rest of this post will mean little if you aren’t intimately acquainted with Anne’s world.)

Regarding the edited stories, I don’t find the pruning of Montgomery’s writing inherently objectionable–she can get way purple, and I’ve often wished for a sterner editorial hand. (This doesn’t mean I love Valancy or Emily any less, just that like Mr. Harrison, I would have preferred that the sunsets be left out.) I think the edits in TRtY are mostly justified—Montgomery’s weakness for ellipses has been reined in, the errors corrected, and the wishy-washier parts have been pruned. Here is an excerpt from the story “The Twins Pretend”, where millionaire Anthony Lennox has just agreed to let two young children, Jill and P.G., redecorate his house.

The Road to Yesterday: “…Well, are you coming in with me?” [Lennox asked]

“You bet,” said Jill and P.G. together.

It would have been incredible to anyone else, but nothing was ever incredible to the twins. They had sojourned so often in the land where wishes come true that nothing amazed them much or long.”

The Blythes are Quoted: “…Well, are you coming in with me?”

“You bet,” said Jill and P.G. together.

Bored? They didn’t know the meaning of such an expression. Wasn’t this just the last word in words! To think of a thing like this falling down on you, right out of the blue, so to speak!

It would have been incredible to anyone else, but nothing was ever incredible to the twins. They had sojourned so often in the land where wishes come true that nothing amazed them much or long.”

No complaints from me here about the edit. And the original story has some errors–e.g. Anthony Lennox thinks about Mrs. Dr. Blythe’s appearance, but later says he knew Anne (and Gilbert) in college. Surely you don’t think about your old college mate as Mrs. Dr. Lastname? TRtY cleans this sort of thing up very successfully.

One of the things I disliked most about TRtY was that the Blythes seemed too good to be true. The accumulation of admiration verges on the ridiculous in TBaQ. Anne is miraculously youthful looking, an ideal wife and mother, never mistaken in her judgment, and beloved by everyone. She sets the standard for behavior, beauty, style, and goodness for PEI. For instance, Anthony Lennox, who’s moped for fifteen years over a lost love, recalls his beloved’s eyes as “suggestive of wild, secret, unfettered delights…very like Mrs. Dr. Blythe’s…” Ummm…creepy. Gilbert Blythe and the Blythe children also receive generous servings of adulation; this book could have been titled The Mary Sues are Quoted.

What’s really interesting about TBaQ is Montgomery’s shifting perception of war. The stories don’t really reflect these changes (perhaps a Montgomery scholar might differ?), but the poems are something else. The first set deals with purple stars and elfin chimes and other Anne-ish fancies. Then war breaks, and the poems get progressively grimmer. The last poem “The Aftermath” is as bitter a repudiation of war as any I’ve read, and Anne says “I am thankful now … that Walter did not come back. He could never have lived with his memories…” Is this the same author who  in Rilla of Ingleside contemptuously dismissed “a pacifist appeal of the rankest sort?” Who believed the First World War was fought “for the preservation and safety of all sweet, wholesome things?” I think some readers will find this side of Montgomery fairly unsettling; as for me, I like her even more now.

(Major Spoilers Ahead.)

And I do love the family vignettes. I enjoyed seeing the Blythe children married, with families of their own, though Faith Blythe (nee Meredith, remember?) calling Anne “Mother Blythe” is rather disconcerting. Jem and Faith have two sons, Jem Jr. and Walter. Rilla is now Rilla Ford, and Nan is Nan Meredith. If you are sufficiently invested in Anne’s world, this kind of detail is utterly satisfying; in my mind, I have already married Shirley to one of Diana’s children, and I must end this post here to figure out names for their three children.

Update: If you like this post, you may want to check out my review of Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables.