Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Book Review Club: December

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@Barrie Summy

Jingle, jingle! Wondering why it's 50 degrees one day, 20 the next? I bet the Ice Dragon is involved. Read on . . .

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By Gregory Maguire
Candlewick 2014

Boy, there’s hardly anything more entertaining than watching a talented author make free with a character we think we already know. Gregory Maguire is among the handiest practitioners of that craft, retelling the tales of an ugly stepsister, Snow White, and, of course, various Oz characters. (He wrote WICKED. Heard of it?)

This time, his partner in madness is Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore whose house walks on chicken legs and who has been known to eat children. There are guest appearances by the Firebird and the Ice Dragon—also Russian folk figures—and Myandash, a character in Saami tales.

Among scads of literary Baba Yagas, Maguire’s earthy, irreverent version retires the jersey. She warps time, fools with the weather, has a house that keeps re-inventing itself and a kitten who keeps the insults flying. (Witch: “I think I’ve kept my figure, don’t you?” Kitten: “Who else would want it?”) She’s lived lots of places at lots of times, confusing her Tsarist Russian listeners with references to vitamins and Emily Dickinson.

“I’ve stepped sideways out of life,” one of our heroines says, watching the witch in action. “I am life,” Baba Yaga replies. “You’ve stepped nearer. For good or for ill, for inspiration or indigestion, I don’t know yet. We’ll see how you get on.”

The tale begins with a “prince and the pauper” switcheroo: In a slapstick mishap, Elena, a dirt-poor girl from a starving village, changes places with Ekaterina (“Cat”), a wealthy, well-educated cosmopolitan on her way to St. Petersburg by private train, intending to meet and possibly woo the Tsar’s godson. She has a present for the Tsar: a Faberge egg that becomes one of the book’s important magical objects (as do the Firebird’s egg, the teeth of the Ice Dragon, and two sets of matryoshka “nesting” dolls).

The focus of the tale switches back and forth between Elena and Cat. Oddly, neither is particularly compelling at first—Cat’s a spoiled rich kid who scores zero on the empathy scale, and Elena is barely surviving, with no time or energy to enchant us. But they grow on us, exactly as such kids would in real life. It’s marvelous to watch them discover that worlds and ideas exist outside their opposite bubbles.

The story is, of course, a marvel of layers and wonders—never was a book cover more apt. The basic problem is that something is draining Russia of magic—the weather’s weird (drought in Elena’s village, floods in St. Petersburg), the Fire Bird’s not regenerating properly, and even Baba Yaga can’t control her environment. The situation is depressingly familiar to those of us who worry about the melting ice cap.

The witch sets off in her chicken-legged house to find the cause, sweeping the two girls along with her.  They meet the Tsar, his godson, Rasputin, and a succession of creatures with their own agendas. They collect new friends and collaborators as a snowball collects pebbles.

Among the book’s layers are the varying relationships between adults and young people.  Most of the grown-ups are either dying or too depressed or oblivious to be of use to the kids in their charge. The two exceptions are Baba Yaga and Cat’s godmother, Madame Sophia, bookends on the social scale who turn out to be funny, delightful maternal figures.

I was bothered by the narrator, an imprisoned monk who tells us that he knows the story because he can watch the world through the eyes of birds. This device is so unwieldy that I’d rather Maguire had ditched it and just left us to imagine how the monk knows so much. Actually, I wondered why he was necessary at all—his little personal asides don’t add much—but perhaps I haven’t thought this through.

Otherwise, this is a wonder of a book. You should read it, or give it to someone. Coincidentally, it’s out just in time for the joyous gift-giving season.

 (Dear FCC: I’ve met Gregory Maguire, but I’m sure he doesn’t remember. I did not manage to snag a review copy of this book—my excellent local library bought it with its own money and lent it to me. My reward for writing this review is entirely spiritual.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October Book Review Club

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Beach-reading time is over, at least in the Northeast. Not quite wood-stove-reading time, but close. This one will work for either--be prepared to dive in, never to surface until the last page.

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The Queen of the Tearling
By Erika Johansen
HarperCollins, 2014

Like many fantasy readers, I’m jonesing big time for the next book in Megan Whelan Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. While I wait (forever? ohpleaseno), I keep looking for another series that will satisfy me without taking every scrap of my free time like the Game of Thrones books.

THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING comes tantalizingly close. Debut author Erika Johansen starts her trilogy with a fascinating premise and pretty good world-building, an interesting conflict, and a fun cast of characters. Both the world and the characters so far lack the rich complexity of Whelan’s, but, hey, we’re in no position to quibble.

The setting is Earth, far in the future. The world we know suffered some kind of apocalypse followed by The Crossing, a shadowy event that sent cataclysm survivors sailing over an unnamed sea to a new world. This world—regressed to medieval technology and forms of government—is divided into four nations, the primary ones for us being The Tearling (which includes cities called New London and Lewiston) and Mortmesne, which is ruled by a powerful witch known as the Red Queen.

Our heroine is Kelsea, daughter and heir of the dead Queen of the Tearling. When we meet her, she has achieved adulthood at 19 and is being collected from the hiding place where she’s spent her formative years. Her loving guardians have raised her to rule and made sure she’s schooled in everything a queen needs to know, but it’s all book learning.

On the harrowing ride from cottage to capital city, she begins learning how to lead for real. By the time she reaches her throne room, she’s gained the loyalty of her Queen’s Guard and made the acquaintance of an entrancing outlaw. She also has made a grandiose but heartfelt gesture to end the monthly shipment of Tearling citizens to Mortmesne for slavery, one legacy of her mother’s reign. For the rest of the book, she’ll struggle to hang on to those gains under the shadow of impending war with the Red Queen’s overwhelming force.

Kelsea’s rise to leadership evolves nicely—she has heart, courage, and brains, and her education has capitalized on all three, so it’s satisfying to watch her synchronize the gears. I do wish I knew her better—the point of view shifts from hers to those of her enemies, which is interesting, but always in third person and always slightly distant.

Also, there’s a deus ex machina: First one, then two sapphire pendants Kelsea has inherited. When the going gets tough, they glow and radiate warmth, apparently offering direction to their young queen. When the going gets outright dangerous, a sapphire can take over to blow an attacker across the room.

The sapphires are an intriguing mystery, and I’m eager to find out what’s going on with them. But in terms of character development—at least in this first book—they’re disappointing. Lyra, heroine of Phillip Pullman’s epic His Dark Materials trilogy, also has a mystical and helpful gizmo, the alethiometer. But she has to learn to use it—it doesn’t just step in and save the day. In a later book, I’m hoping Kelsea, too, will be called upon to live up to her accessories.

I keep comparing this first book to DUNE, Frank Herbert’s beloved space saga. Like Kelsea, Paul Atreides has been trained to lead but has to struggle at a young age to apply his learning to real situations. He also has mystical underpinnings that sometimes seem to take control—although they’re internal, not housed in a glowing gem. One of his victories at the end of the book is learning to be the boss, directing the mystical powers rather than just letting them do their own thing. I trust that victory awaits Kelsea, too.

There’s yet another character problem, although this may be the result of my own prejudices. Much is made of the fact that Kelsea is “plain,” a big disappointment to herself and those who remember her beautiful mother. The message over the course of the book is, “Hey, looks aren't everything.” True enough, but that trope seems old-hat to me—I thought we’d moved beyond it.

Despite the problems, I gobbled up this book and am eager for the next installment in the trilogy. The premise is so very, very compelling, the many mysteries so very, very tantalizing—I’m willing to trust that Kelsea will grow on me as a character.

And, girl, get control of those blue rocks.

(Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday, because my man knows how to keep me quiet.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We're Back! The Book Review Club Greets September

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@Barrie Summy

Back to reality, girls and boys. And by way of easing back in, here's a book set in the steamy jungle of New Guinea, where snakes slither through the grass and gingham curtains flutter at the window. (Seriously.)

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By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014

 “It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion – you’ve only been there eight weeks – and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”

That’s an anthropologist talking about living with a jungle tribe. But we recognize the feeling even if we’ve never been closer to New Guinea than the National Geographic channel. It applies to love affairs, new jobs, books you’re writing, a new group of friends . . . and so on and on.

Forthright, charismatic Nell Stone, the anthropologist who’s speaking, is the central figure of Lily King’s EUPHORIA.  Inspired by events in the life of Margaret Mead after the 1928 publication of her groundbreaking COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA, this is a slim, thoughtful, honed-down book, a breathtaking read.

The narration alternates between first person and third, with the occasional dip into Nell’s field notebook. In the third person, we meet Nell and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick—called “Fen”—as they are canoeing away from a New Guinea tribal village that has exhausted and horrified them. The first two things we learn are that someone may have thrown a dead baby at them (the tribe does not hesitate to drown unwanted newborns) and that Fen has somehow broken Nell’s glasses.

Elsewhere on the river, in the more intimate first-person, we meet anthropologist Andrew Bankson as he’s trying unsuccessfully to drown himself. And we’re off.

EUPHORIA is a love story, tragic in its way, but it also is a fascinating essay on the pitfalls of anthropological fieldwork. And it’s about jealousy, of two or three types.

In the 1930s, anthropologists are divvying up interesting tribes the way archaeologists used to divide up Egyptian burial sites. Disappointed in their first New Guinea tribe, Nell and Fen are looking for a pleasanter one—with good art, we learn to our amusement. Bankson helps them find a nice one, and then—lonely, drawn to them as intriguing fellow scholars, and increasingly enamored of Nell—visits them on extended vacations from the village he’s studying.

As we watch Nell and Fen set themselves up—big new house, curtains at the windows, villagers employed as servants—we realize that their scholarship is compromised by their own points of view and the way their presence is changing the tribe daily.  “Glimpses of how it really was before us are rare, if not impossible,” Nell admits.

But there are bigger problems. Because of her first, groundbreaking book, Nell keeps getting swamped with mail and lecture offers. The as-yet-unpublished Fen is increasingly rabid for fame of his own, desperation eating away at his scientific ethics. And, of course, Nell and Bankson—wonderful characters, clearly meant for each other—are falling in love.

In a book that’s otherwise as intricate and measured and lovely as a Bach fugue, Fen struck a discordant note for me, at least in the first reading. He’s so relentlessly the villain—nasty to Nell (how did those glasses break?), a mean drunk, waving a gun around at the slightest provocation, concocting a truly dastardly deed to make his name. The ending, in which he enacts everything we could possibly have feared, seemed rushed and at the same time way too neat.

The last of the tragedy unfolds at a distance, and we find out about it well after the fact. That’s an interesting choice for King, and muted the impact for me. But a second reading may convince me that the distance is necessary, as is Fen’s eternal drumbeat.

I’m looking forward to that second reading. Despite my quibbles, this is among my top ten books of 2014, maybe the top five. Highly recommended for a totally immersive read.

Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday, recommended to my beloved by Blue Hill Books. Nobody cares whether I review it. And you know me, FCC—I'm just out for a good time.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Writing Process (tag, you're It!)

There’s been a meme going around (sounds like the flu) called, thrillingly, My Writing Process. I got tagged by the estimable Katie Quirk, who posted a week ago.

Katie, by the way, is the author of A GIRL CALLED PROBLEM. Set in Tanzania, East Africa, this middle-grade novel received a starred Kirkus review, a glowing review by School Library Journal's Elizabeth Bird, and a write-up in the New York Times Book Review. Katie's current project, RICHARD NIXON GAVE ME CHOCOLATE, is a memoir of motherhood, adventure, and coming to terms with not "having it all," set in the mountains of southern India. She currently lives in Orono, ME, and frequently visits schools, libraries, universities and book festivals to talk about her time in Tanzania and about the craft of writing.

So here are the questions Katie passed along.

And, coincidentally, my answers.

1. What am I working on?

I just finished the rough, rough, horribly rough, terrible, and stinky draft of a fantasy set in southern Maine in the 1650s. It involves a girl from a distant tribe stranded in an English settlement and brought up there, and a shape-shifting magician who plays tricks on the settlement with dire consequences.

Here’s the opening:

It was possible, Mother Bolton said, that Nathan Chartwell had been turned into a spotted hog.

Grace almost believed it. Sabbath evening, Nathan had been in the stocks for drunkenness and vile language—which nobody minded except there was a preacher visiting from Boston. The next morning Nathan was gone and a speckled monster roamed the village center, snuffling for acorns. 

Grace had never seen that hog. Nor had anyone else.  Its spots were exactly the same as Nathan’s smallpox scars, his wife said, and it had corn whiskey on its breath.

Sure that it was her husband, Mistress Chartwell waved her skinny arms and commenced a great wail that lasted half the morning. You could hear her over the thump of a butter churn half a mile away.

At last Mistress Chartwell quieted down, called the hog Nathan, and took him home. She treated the beast very well in the following days—better than she’d treated her husband, some said. She gave him porridge in the morning and meat in the afternoon, and tucked him into bed by the fire.

Now to turn this thing into an actual book.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My fantasies are firmly grounded in reality—a fantasy figure (so far, a goatman, fairies, a banshee, and now a shape-shifting magician) makes life complicated and dangerous for a human kid, basically. Also, there’s a lot of humor—or I flatter myself that there is.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I used to love stories that took place in a completely fantastical setting: THE LORD OF THE RINGS, for example. I still love many of them, but as I’ve gotten older I seem to prefer one foot in the real world.  I like the notion that the reader has a representative on the page—someone who is used to subways and school buses and popsicles, who will be just as astounded as we are at the magical goings-on and can ask for an explanation when things get too weird.

I don’t think I realized the full potential of reality-based, humorous fantasy until I encountered Diana Wynne-Jones (my first book of hers was ARCHER’S GOON, which is marvelous). Neil Gaiman is another practitioner I admire. If you haven’t read FORTUNATELY, THE MILK (his latest for kids), you should correct that deficiency now.

4) How does my writing process work?

I’ve been an editor as well as a writer all my life, and I seem to be most comfortable editing. For that reason, I have to be very strict with myself when drafting, because otherwise I’ll procrastinate and never get anything down on paper.

Once I get to revision, I will cheerfully work all day, regardless of word count. Revision is my happy place. I doubt that anyone looks forward to an editorial letter more than I do.

When I’m drafting, I am not allowed to eat lunch until I have a thousand words. I may write a little more in the afternoon, but it’s okay if I research instead. (I love research so much it feels like I’m goofing off. And, in fact, I would just keep researching without writing if not for the thousand-word rule.)

I should specify that at this point I’m not writing a thousand good words. Just words. In the past month or so, somebody commented somewhere that drafting is like shoveling sand into the sandbox. Revision is when you build the sand castle.

I keep telling myself that.

Sometimes I get so stuck that I can’t crank out even the bad words, other than swearing at myself. When that happens I open a new document and write a diary entry for one of my characters. Doesn’t have to be about anything important—the weather, what he/she had for breakfast. Within half an hour, the character’s told me where the story’s heading next, and I’m back in the main document.

Sometimes the brain doesn’t engage unless the fingers are typing.

If I’m really in trouble, the diary entry figures in the word count. Cheating, sure. But hey . . . whatever gets you to lunch.


And now I pass the baton and the baloney sandwich to Dawn Metcalf and Erin Dionne , who will post next Thursday, June 5.

Dawn Metcalf has always lived on the edge between reality and magic, which explains her current profession and love of fantasy books and games. Her passions include karate, fairy tales, Victoriana and dark chocolate, often combining one or more of them in unexpected ways. She’s the author of INDELIBLE and its forthcoming sequel, INVISIBLE, as well as LUMINOUS. Dawn lives with her husband and family in northern Connecticut. If they had a sign, it would be: Confounding the Neighbor Children Since 1999. Visit her online at

Erin Dionne’s books are Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, and Notes from an Accidental Band Geek. Her novel Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking: A 14 Day Mystery, is based on the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. The series continues with Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting (July 2014). A graduate of Boston College (English & Communications, 1997) and Emerson College (MFA, 1999); she teaches writing at Montserrat College of Art and lives outside of Boston with her husband, two children, and a very indignant dog.  She’s online at

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April Book Review

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@Barrie Summy

Happy Spring! I say this with tongue firmly in cheek. What a mess it is in Maine! Way, way, too early for beach reading, so here's a wonderful tome to get you through to warm weather

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The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt
Little, Brown & Co, 2013

A little Salinger, a little Updike. A hefty dose of Dickens. But mostly, Donna Tartt—this is the only book of hers I've read (she's written three novels, one a decade) and she's high in my pantheon now.

At just under 800 pages, THE GOLDFINCH is a time commitment. But there's no sense of drudgery, partly because this is a miraculous marriage of four books tied together with common threads—get tired of one phase of our hero's life, and presto! there's another.

The major cohesive thread is “The Goldfinch,” the small 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius that in real life just visited the Frick Collection in New York from its home in The Hague. The painting—of a bird chained to a perch against a blank wall—is deceptively simple but luminous in color and brush-strokes, much like this book.

Our narrator, thirteen-year-old New Yorker Theo Decker, meets the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he visits with his vibrant, beautiful, and much-loved single mother on a disastrously coincidental day. Theo has misbehaved and been suspended from school. On an uncomfortable journey uptown with his mother to discuss his case with school officials, the two are driven by the rain into the Met and decide to take a gander at a visiting exhibit of northern European art.

From that series of coincidences comes the tragedy that will run Theo's life: The Deckers part company
"The Goldfinch" (Carel Fabritius, 1654)
briefly, and at that exact moment a terrorist's bomb goes off. His mother is killed. Theo comes to in a wrecked gallery and comforts a dying old man, who makes him take “The Goldfinch” off the wall (it's only 13.25 x 9 inches) and insists on giving him an ornate gold ring.

Theo ends up wandering home with both ring and painting. From the old man's half-demented ramblings, he figures out months later where to return the ring, another life-changing event. But he does not return the painting—it becomes his only source of contact with his life Before. Eventually, as his post-bomb befuddlement fades, he begins to realize that the world will consider him an art thief—the more so the longer he puts off telling anyone about the little painting.

Over the next fourteen years, “The Goldfinch”--hidden in increasingly complex circumstances--becomes Theo's joy and his solace, but also his burden and the subject of deep guilt. In other words, it's family.

Immediately after the bombing, Theo fetches up on Park Avenue with the Barbours, the wealthy family of a school friend. It's here that Tartt offers us a slow, exquisite depiction of extreme grief, from the harrowing early moments ( “I said yes and no when I was spoken to, and spent a lot of time staring at the carpet so people wouldn't see I was crying”) to the later stages when everything's supposed to be back to normal but Just Simply Isn't.

The Park Avenue phase of Theo's story ends when his father, a drunk with a gambling problem (or vice versa), uproots him to a dusty, eerily deserted Las Vegas suburb. This is the second and, to me, the most depressing section of the book, Oliver Twist meets Holden Caulfield. Appearing in the role of Artful Dodger, however, is one of the book's funniest and most compelling characters: Boris, a Russian teen who has lived all over the world and created his own set of ethics in the process. His father, a mining engineer, disappears for weeks only to return in a drunken rage and beat his son. Theo's father isn't much better, so the two embark on a drug-fueled shadow existence, wandering from empty house to empty house, utterly reliant on one another.

Theo eventually makes it back to New York for his Dickens-and-Salinger-meet-Updike phase. Still possessing and possessed by “The Goldfinch,” he drifts into furniture fraud, at risk of betraying the mentor he acquired years before when he returned the dying old man's gold ring. In love with the old man's granddaughter, also a survivor of the bombing, he nevertheless becomes engaged to the brittle socialite daughter of the Park Avenue Barbours, thus subjected to Society at its most vapid.

Phase four features the return of Boris, who pulls Theo into a Grisham-esque thriller—a sometimes comic, sometimes nail-biting page-turner, fun but less enthralling to me than the more character-driven segments of the book.

I'm making this book sound like a real mess, aren't I? Trust me, it's not. Although a tad wordy in places, the writing is spectacular. The characters are round and real and absorbing, and there's an undercurrent of magical realism as coincidences and extraordinary insights first destroy lives and then save them. Your time will be well invested.

(Dear FCC: I gave this book to my beloved for Christmas, and when he'd finished he would not rest until I got started on it. Then he kept hovering and asking “Where are you? What's happening now?” Annoying yet endearing, much like this postscript.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

March Book Review Club

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Gaaaaahhhh! It's March and the temperature's in the single digits! What is there to do but read a good book?

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By Tim Tingle
The RoadRunner Press, 2013

“Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before,” our young Choctaw narrator begins. “I am a ghost. I am not a ghost when this book begins, so you have to pay very close attention.”

How could this book not be a page-turner?

Our narrator, ten-year-old Isaac, meets his destiny on the Trail of Tears, the horrifying path walked by southeastern Native American nations after passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The descendent of a trail-walker, Tim Tingle drew on family history and conversations with tribal elders to write this and other books about the event.

But HOW I BECAME A GHOST does not read like history—the story is immediate and real, thanks to a flat-toned yet evocative young narrator,  journeying from innocence through cataclysm to an all-too-temporary justice. 

When the book begins, Isaac’s chief concern is keeping his beloved dog, Jumper, from eating the chickens. (Jumper talks, our first clue that this is not just any old story.) Isaac lives with his parents and twelve-year-old brother in a Choctaw town a few miles from the nearest Nahullos, white people. One day, the family gets wind of Treaty Talk—never good news—and before long they and their neighbors are informed that they’re going to be moved far away. 

In preparation for the disruption, Isaac’s mother takes him on a round of ceremonial visits to the  elders. Isaac discovers that he can “see things before they happen”—in this case, elders burning or erupting in pustules.  He keeps his horrible visions to himself, but they come to fruition  when a band of Nahullos attacks the Choctaws, burning down their houses and driving them to an island in a nearby swamp. Later, in a show of friendliness, they deliver the now-infamous blankets imbued with smallpox.

Isaac’s family survives to join the death march to Oklahoma. By this time Isaac has made two more discoveries: He can see and talk to Choctaw ghosts, and he will soon become one himself.  Terrifying, yes—but ultimately a comfort, as he learns that the great host of Choctaw dead stay near their people and step in to help when they can.

The book takes a suspenseful turn after Isaac’s death, when he and other ghosts help rescue a young girl enslaved by soldiers accompanying the march. The living rescuers include a shape-shifter boy who turns into a panther and the bonepickers, old women who tend the bodies of the dead as part of Choctaw funeral rites. It’s all very cool, yet we never forget the inexorable tragedy taking place around us.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and ends rather abruptly. I would have preferred more of a ringing conclusion that allowed the book to stand on its own, but I have to say this one accomplished its purpose: I’m ready and waiting for the next episode.

Dear FCC: I downloaded this book at my own expense after reading about it on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center listserve.  And yes, I am tempted to wonder why cooperative children need their own book center. (I’m sure CCBC’s never heard that one before.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

February Book Review Club

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It's snowing! And there's no school today--perfect for reading. My only regret is that I will not be reading THE REAL BOY for the first time, and will have to find my magic elsewhere. 

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By Anne Ursu
Illustrations by Erin McGuire
Walden Pond Press, 2013

Every now and then, reading a new book, I know within a page or two that I am in the presence of greatness. Being mostly Irish, I usually experience a spasm of negativity: “If I live to be 100, I’ll never write this well,” I mutter, tempted to throw the book across the room. But I soldier on (especially if I’m reading on a Kindle) and pretty soon the negative feelings are overwhelmed by the wonder of it all.

The most recent instance of this was Anne Ursu’s THE REAL BOY. One page in, I’d already noted the lovely writing, but that left me unharrowed. Then I read this: “The Asterians didn’t call themselves anything special, because when everyone else refers to you as the shining people, you really don’t have to do it yourself.”

And, a page or two later: “The apprentice’s name was Wolf, because sometimes the universe is an unsubtle place.”

Beautiful writing AND a wry narrator? Oh dear.

I’d read Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS  a few years before. I liked it very much, but it didn’t really stick with me. This one will be in my head and heart forever.

As usual, the key is the main character. A young boy, Oscar, is the “hand” to a magician, spending his days in the cellar under the shop processing herbs that he grows and harvests outside of town. He is happy only when his schedule is regular, he’s surrounded by cats and plants, and he doesn’t have to deal with his fellow humans.

We find out early on that, while he is very smart and very skilled in his work, he is mystified and frightened by other people—he doesn’t know how to read their expressions, and struggles to find the literal meaning in the most frivolous comment. This an achingly beautiful rendition of autism—not as a disease or even a condition, but as part of who Oscar is. Sometimes it’s a barrier, sometimes an advantage. Marvelous.

Oscar lives in the Barrow, the most magical place on the island of Aletheia. The magic is in the soil, and therefore in everything that grows there. The Barrow surrounds the base of a tall hill, on the crest of which is the gleaming town of Asteri, whose wealthy residents rely on the magical goods the Barrow craftspeople create.

But all is not well. Children in Asteri are falling ill in mysterious ways, and a monster appears to be roaming the countryside. Something may be happening to the soil’s magic. In the grand tradition of authors torturing their characters, it’s not long before both the magician and his apprentice depart the scene, leaving poor horrified Oscar to tend the shop and deal with an increasingly panicky populace.

Oscar’s progress from cats to courage is utterly believable—inevitable, in fact. There are a couple of very cool surprises—one that tells you, “Hey, this is Pinocchio!” followed by a second that rearranges your brain cells all over again.

Oh, and by the way—everybody has dark skin, but it’s not an issue. It’s mentioned in passing in the text, confirmed by the wonderful illustrations. Yay.

I can’t possibly recommend this book enough. If you write books for a living, though, get your self-esteem in order before you start it.

Dear FCC: I bought this book because I liked the cover. I’m reviewing it because I had no other spiritual choice.