The Art of Losing: Charlotte’s Web

I liked sad things when I was a child. I probably still do like sad things, the lovely feeling of loss and connection one gets when unfortunate things happen to imaginary people in books. I would beg my Grandma Dory to read me The Little Match Girl over and over, and I would weep giant crocodile tears of pain and empathy at the girl’s frozen body, the grandmother and the candles, the matches all struck and burnt down to a flash of pain and then the letting go…

Charlotte is something of this for me, but it’s worse, her little spider body grown stiff and brittle and almost silly. I don’t know why I think about the corpses these ladies leave, but there’s something incredibly sad about how Charlotte diminishes from this great spinning speaking voice into a dead bug. Sad, so so sad.

I’ve tried to write this review a couple of hundred times, but it keeps falling apart. This story is so light, so airy, that it resists too much pressure, or goes squishing out the other end. I’ve half-written a dozen childhood reveries; I’ve cracked some jokes about how well punctuated this book is; I’ve talked about Charlotte-as-writer. None of this worked, and I promise it was all fumbling garbage. The following story comes closer to capturing how this book makes me feel than any other thing I’ve written for this review. I’m not satisfied with it, but it’s what I’ve got.

My Grandma Fran was dying, and I was a thousand miles from home. The hospital was like a hospital. My two-year-old-girl did the very best a 2-year-old could do with the beeping boredom of sitting for hours at a hospital bedside, but often we would have to go rambling around just to see what we could see. The hospital had no grounds to speak of, very little grass, but it did have a square pool of water that we considered every time we walked in from the parking lot. I think it may have been a fountain at some point, but it had been turned off or broken so it was just water in the ground.

We walked up to the edge. We took off our shoes and put in our feet. She splashed with her hands held so tight that her fingers curled up, a funny, baby-like gesture from a someone who was tending towards girlishness more and more at the time. Even though the air and the water were the same temperature, the air felt warm and the water cool. We rolled up our pants and walked around. She fell onto her butt and I laughed. She splashed me and I splashed her back. We found cars in my purse and drove them around the edges and fished them off the bottom. Then a security guard came and told us that the pool was only for decoration and we had to get out. We did, and went back to the hospital room, dripping. We told Grandma about swimming in the forbidden fountain, and she laughed. Grandma was still dying.

Here’s something you should read:

“Let’s swing in the swing!” said Avery.

The children ran to the barn.

Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.

Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.

Avery put the frog in his pocket and climbed to the hayloft. “The last time I swang in this swing, I almost crashed into a barn swallow,” he yelled.

“Take that frog out!” ordered Fern.

Avery straddled the rope and jumped. He sailed out through the door, frog and all, and into the sky, frog and all. Then he sailed back into the barn.

“Your tongue is purple! ” screamed Fern.

“So is yours!” cried Avery, sailing out again with the frog.

“I have hay inside my dress! It itches!” called Fern.

“Scratch it!” yelled Avery, as he sailed back.

“It’s my turn,” said Fern. “Jump off!”

“Fern’s got the itch!” sang Avery.

When he jumped off, he threw the swing up to his sister. She shut her eyes tight and jumped. She felt the dizzy drop, then the supporting lift of the swing. When she opened her eyes she was looking up into the blue sky and was about to fly back through the door.

They took turns for an hour.

When the children grew tired of swinging, they went down toward the pasture and picked wild raspberries and ate them. Their tongues turned from purple to red. Fern bit into a raspberry that had a bad-tasting bug inside it, and got discouraged. Avery found an empty candy box and put his frog in it. The frog seemed tired after his morning in the swing. The children walked slowly up toward the barn. They, too, were tired and hardly had energy enough to walk.

“Let’s build a tree house,” suggested Avery. “I want to live in a tree, with my frog.”

The Secret of Ferrell Savage by J. Duddy Gill

You know, I wrote this whole ridiculous review where I hand-wrung about middle grade fiction, but that was lame and I’m glad it got lost. I’ll just note, in lieu of recreating said hand-wringing, that middle grade is a tough genre for me to assess, because it’s so totally not aimed at me, not just in age, but in reading and worldly experience. While the big life themes are of course present for the middle grader – how to deal with your parents, and friends, and sometimes even romantic love, the constant whooo-ammmm-III? – it’s just odd for an adult to remember being a child with the child perspective on all that stuff. 

My ten year old and I occasionally swap books for the MG set – him being a middle-grader and all – and we rarely agree about what is awesome. Adam Rex is a winner for both of us, because he’s funny and, maybe more importantly, a weirdo, writing just the strangest narratives. I mean that decidedly as a compliment. (Also, of note, I drunk-friend-requested Rex on Goodreads once, and he was gracious enough to accept and put up with a slobbery PM from me. The boy still bugs me to send him more PMs, but the sober light of day has prevailed heretofore. You’re welcome, Adam Rex.) Anyway, point being, I think this might be a winner for both of us. I’ll have to slip it in next to his bed and see what happens. 

Ferrell and his neighbor and good friend Mary are preparing for the annual sled race at the start of the novel. Mary is bossy and driven, the way girls are before the whole Ophelia death-trap of adolescence. Ferrell is much more happy-go-lucky, good-natured and not particularly competitive. Mary has decided she’s going to win the fudge (only I didn’t actually say fudge) out of the race, carefully constructing a sled out of a wash basin – the race is of home-built wacky sleds, not just your usual red runner – and Ferrell, true to form, leaves his sled-building to the last second. After the race, some family history comes to light for Ferrell and Mary, and no more about that because spoilers. 

I kinda love Mary and Ferrell, the whole darn it, Ferrell, pay attention!! from Mary, and Ferrell’s whole gosh, Mary, sorry which is then tinged with irritation. I like these stories about the odd changing moment in male-female friendships, where you very subtly realize that your bff for forever is a girl, and you are a boy. (Or vice versa, you know.) It’s not the relationship has to go all romantic or something, just that there’s this tiny shift, along with a dozen other little shifts in how you perceive your parents and your peers and all that. 

The Whole Stupid Way We Are and Breadcrumbs rocked in depicting this shift, but I think they’re probably, um, how do I say this? too literary for the fart-joke set. Maybe in another couple of years when my boy is actually going through this shift. (Though there are signs it’s happening; heaven help him.) I think The Secret of Ferrell Savage is going to be a win for the boy because it’s really cleanly written, and it’s about sled racing and cannibalism. Goofy goes a way long way in holding the attention of ten-year-olds, and while the sled-racing and cannibalism is treated earnestly in some ways, Gill doesn’t veer to precious or dour. There are great Dickensian names, like the titular Ferrell Savage, who is a vegan, or the nemesis, Littledood. 

But then also, I just love stuff like this, in a conversation between Mary and Ferrell during the crux of the whole thing. No spoilers, I promise:

“I wonder why there are so many movies about vampires and none about cannibals. They’re both gross, no matter how cute they guy is who’s biting you.”

Then I said, “I think sucking blood isn’t as gross, because you don’t have to chew. There’s just something about having to floss all those little arm hairs and bony pieces out of your teeth that kind of ruins it for me.”

Out of the mouths of babes, man. My Grandpa would hate this, because he was one of those red-meat-and-potatoes guys who thought anything that suggested that vegetarianism was okay – veganism hadn’t been invented in Pennsylvania in the 80s, though it may have existed elsewhere and would have driven him nuts – was the work of Communists. Watching the movie version of Babe: The Gallant Pig with him was a frustrating experience, I’ll tell you what, and I’m not even a vegetarian. So it was cute to have Ferrell be a vegan and not have it be this big thing either way. Or it is a thing, but not the way you expect. Also, Ferrell and Mary pretty much nail the vampire craze right there. Booyah. 

So I hope I can get the boy to read this, because my reader’s advisory hasn’t necessarily been the greatest, but I’m learning.The Secret of Ferrell Savage is undoubtedly the most adorable novel about cannibalism ever written.

I received my ARC from the publisher, but no conditions were put on my review. 

Reluctant Boy Readers: Peregrine Harker and the Black Death

I requested Peregrine Harker the Black Death from NetGalley because I have a shine for the Black Plague, and young adult novels about ridiculously awful social and bacteriological devastation appeal to me in the abstract. Unfortunately for this reader, it wasn’t really about bubonic plague. This book also skews younger than the young adult label implies, really more for the 10-14 demographic than late high school or slumming adults. There’s been a lot of fracture in the age distinctions for novels in the past however long – apparently there is a category called New Adult these days? – but I think that sometimes those distinctions can be fruitful. Or if not fruitful, than useful for readers to determine interest level. 

Peregrine Harker the Black Death by Luke Hollands absolutely screams to me reluctant boy reader, with its parentless boy detective type first-person narrator who is a cross between the pre-radioactive-spider-bitten Peter Parker and Tin Tin. He is hauled in by a superior at the newspaper and ordered to stop going off on wild tangents, and then immediately goes off on a wild tangent that gets him knocked on the head and embroiled in a Scooby Doo style mystery. There’s some mild family angst, but everybody is too busy running around and avoiding being buried alive and the like to really delve into melodrama. 

Everything is extremely action-driven, and moves fairly breathlessly around an almost overdone Victorian England. The prose is very pip pip cheerio old bean bloke lorry loo, and it took me a while to determine that this wasn’t meant to be funning on British prose style, but straight up. Or maybe it is funning after all, but it is very over the top in its Britishiosity. I didn’t exactly like this, but I think for the demographic who should be reading this, it would be fun and novel. 

I’m going to admit here I didn’t finish Peregrine Harker the Black Death. A book aimed at boys who don’t like to read and therefore gives them scads and scads of action to the detriment of anything else a novel might provide isn’t really my bag. I think I’m sounding a little bitter here, but I don’t mean to go that way. Stylized action vehicles are completely valid, especially if you’re trying to sucker some snot-nosed brat into reading instead of Minecraft. I think my 9 year old, who is an unreluctant boy reader, would probably enjoy this as action fluff. Young people who are afraid that books might have girl cooties all over them will likely enjoy this too. This is mostly cootie-free. 

But I don’t think somewhat mindless action vehicles are ultimately going to turn the reluctant reader into an avid one, because there’s not a lot of here here. I don’t believe that reading is ennobling, and I don’t think it has to be didactic or educational to be worthwhile. The things that make reading rewarding, or differently rewarding than building Legos or Mariocart – finely drawn (or even exaggerated) emotional states, engaging or challenging prose, thoughtful plotting, any kind of character study – are not in evidence here. And not that this one novel has to adhere to my cranky old standards or solve all the issues I have with how reading fits into other media, gendered divisions in marketing, and whatnot. A perfectly slap-happy read for someone other than me.

Murder of Crows by Athena

I’m not sure how to review, per usual with my 3-star outings, which in my universe means “I liked it” just to be clear. The prose and a lot of the ornament, characters, and set-pieces really worked for me. The overall structure of the novel and its pacing did not. I was confounded at least once in my expectation that this was paranormal romance, which is a problem of my expectations, and not of the book. It is closer to dark fantasy, nearer in tone to Neil Gaiman than Karen Marie Moning. Maybe Charles de Lint is the best comparison.

Fable Montgomery returns to Portland to deal with her beloved Aunt Celeste’s murder. The opening is slow, the hot cop and his chilly female partner settling in for some round-the-clock surveillance, with what I felt like was the usual hand-wringing about pasts and lost opportunities and tense conversations, cut with a little spooking for fun. The fairy statue keeps moving whyyyy? Then, the whole thing shifted leftwise, and the air filled with feathered beings and the house filled with funny, drunk aunts, and I really started enjoying myself.

Fable is whisked to a otherworld called Aria, learning her lost history and managing her grief for her aunt. I find these paranormal otherlands pretty great landscapes for characters to work out grief. It’s a good metaphor because the world no longer makes sense without the loved one in it, its customs antique and occult, and if only she were living everything would make sense. Fable flounders, learning the way we often do more about her aunt in death than she knew in life. We sit in rooms, hearing stories from those who knew the dead in ways we couldn’t or didn’t, and it’s an otherworld. That this otherworld is also cut with half-remembered childhood – the way the lost family member is also the loss of childhood on some level – that was some seriously cool stuff.

As I said, the ornament here is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and there’s some great stuff involving evil ravens that bloom out of tattoos on the edge of a knife, or the landscape blurring past in the arms of what is morphologically an angel. However, I don’t think this is a spoiler to say that Fable’s past is a secret history, a childhood in Narnian escapes run to amnesia for occult reasons, a common enough trope in fantasy literature to be both familiar and frustrating. She catches up much slower than I would prefer, especially given the complex backstory and world-building that is attempted in the blank space of her memory, characters allowed to explain at length what is going on, but not what really is going on. The expository restraint was too restrained.

I think I’ve said this before, but an intrinsic problem with modern characters swooped into fantasy worlds is that that characters have to spend too much time on the exposition couch mutteringthis is not happening. We as readers know they are in a fantasy novel, but they don’t, and while it would blow character believability to have them accept their new fantastic surroundings too fast, it’s still a little frustrating to watch them flounder. This can can be made up for by the potential for neat, anachronistic – this is the wrong word, but whatever – dialogue, where fantastic creatures ask about the most recent season of Survivor, or Fable drops an f-bomb. Maybe this is sounding like a cut-down, but I really do dig this, when modern folk rub shoulders with all the ye gads fol de rol of the Grimmish mythic idiom, and the modern folk get all Buffy dialogue up in the house. Good.

The device of the lost manuscript – Fable writes a seemingly prescient account of the novel’s proceedings in a near swoon, which is then stolen but for precious pages – is deployed somewhat clumsily. At times it is this nifty almost postmodern commentary on linearity in story and the whole bothersome fate business in fantastic fiction, and at others it’s a tiresome infodump that set me itching to skim. The lost manuscript folds up really nicely in the end, so my issue is more structural than anything – I think there could have been a mechanism other than the bald reading-out of the pages that transpires.

Though I said this wasn’t paranormal romance, and it isn’t, there is a love story on the edge of the proceedings, which in many ways I dug. Fable’s not some half-assed virginal dimbulb who doesn’t understand her own feeeelings down there. And while I said that her love interest was functionally an angel, the fact that dude is part bird is understood and freaked out about as the partial bestiality it is. No, he’s not a dumb beast, but he isn’t exactly human either, right? Maybe this sounds like a turn-off – oh noes, TEH BESTIALITY – but I really dig when writers own the unsafe edges of these creatures and their hybrid natures.

This bit here is an actual spoiler, I think, dealing with something that happens very late in the book. It isn’t, like, totally plot pivotal, but it is an aspect of the love interest’s relationship that is pretty central. SPOILERS. Anyway, the only thing that flipped my shit – and I admit this is a personal hang up of mine – is that my eyes roll back into my head whenever the mate-for-life trope is activated. And when angel man high-handedly pulled off some lifelong “mating” with Fable without her knowledge or consent, I was eye-rolling. This wasn’t as coercive as I’ve seen it done before when the trope comes up – there are complexities due to the secret history which make consent/identity/etc murky – and the lead up was cooler and more sexy than usual – but mate-for-life still ticks me off.

I think my real problem is I don’t get the point of the mate-for-life trope in fiction, except as a pander to lame, simplistic readerly or authorial instincts. This man is not just true-blue, he’s so true-blue he’s biologically incapable of loving someone else ever! No worries, forever! (See, for example, the treatment of Jacob and all of the other imprinted wolves in the Twilight books.) And one that introduces ethical and behavioral complications no writer yet has taken on, as far as I’ve seen. So, he’s bound for life to his mate? And she is not in the same manner? What happens when, in a couple months when the thrill is gone for her, she tries to leave? Or even, let’s give it 20 years, and they’re empty nesters (har-de-har-har) who have grown increasingly apart, and she discovers the writings of Erica Jong? He descends into martyred alcoholism? Or does he kill her because he owns her in his mind?

Love is an emotion, and never unconditional or unbreakable. Nor should it be, imao; people are capable of terrible, love-destroying acts, and while it’s tempting to pull out a bunch of genocide and other rhetorical point-scorers to make my point, even some of the more garden variety betrayals and cruelties should not (or cannot) be forgiven or gotten over. That someone could be stuck in a love relationship he has no emotional agency within – literally forced to love – regardless of anything the other person does, this strikes me as seriously depressing. Admittedly, I’m a bitter old crank though, and given how often I run into mate-for-life motifs, I’m probably an outlier in freaking out about it. And, the way it was used here was more to establish our fella as a gauzy dreamboat with feeelings, which is the best of the options with this trope. /SPOILERS

Again, this is not a huge part of their relationship, and in other regards I liked the ways they interacted and related, especially Fable’s checkered romantic history and her general competence despite the weirdness and danger going on here. There’s another situation that impinges on her autonomy, but that is also politically sensitive. She doesn’t lay out an offensive monologue about how unfair it is waa-waa, and then everyone reorders their civilization to make her feel better – something I see happen a lot in fantasy; Mary Sue reorders it all. Nor does she dissolve into a dishrag, but wends to a third option. That’s neat.

So. I enjoyed this world and its characters. There’s a lot of there there, and some real comings to terms with grief and lost childhood. However, the plot felt thin, with no solid payoffs, and the ending dot-dot-dots to the next installment in what I felt was a frustrating manner. This felt like scene-setting or prologue, and the ending is not so much a cliffhanger as an indecisive break. Which bums me out, because there is certainly something here. All that said, I think I’m on the hook for the next installment. First novels are what they are, and given the strengths of this one, there’s a lot of potential. And actual and fantastical. Which, boo yah. Plus, I adore the cover.

(And, just a final aside, although I almost never, ever do this, I was approached by the author on GR offering me a copy, and the description was honestly interesting to me. I bought it fair and square, because I geek out a little about direct transactions between authors and readers, but she did kindly send me a cleaned up copy about halfway through my read. As a self-pub, the usual typos had slipped though the editing process – I noticed a few before I switched to the new version – but have since been expunged. So. Here is your stupidly detailed full disclosure abut how I exchanged a few emails with Athena, who seems like a really cool lady. The end.)

Secrets, Monsters, And Magic Mirrors: Middle School Comics with Bite

I found  Secrets, Monsters, and Magic Mirrorsat the Indy Comics Expo here in Minneapolis, considered at a table staffed by very nice folk before I returned an hour later, this book appealing enough to stick in my memory and have me return with the requisite cash. I’m hovering between three stars and four, the way you do. Not that anyone cares, but I have a lot of problems rating stuff aimed at children, because my enjoyment and theirs are often…not at odds…but not convergent either. 

There’s not a lot here that’s truly surprising, The retellings are pared down and hew closely to the originals. This collection is pretty Hans Christian Andersen-heavy, with three out of the five stories coming from his literary fairy tales – The Snow Queen, The Princess and the Pea, and Thumbelina. Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel round out the collection. I know I’ve made this distinction before, but it’s worth noting: Andersen’s stories are not folk tales like Rapunzel; they are the literate cousin, forged in a single pen, in a single mind. They may afterwards slip their origins and run wild, the way stories do, but there is a single creation point, not the indistinct utterances of nurses and parents through many ages and countries. I’m not sure that matters in assessing these tellings, but I just had to say it. 

So. To the individual stories. 

Rapunzel by Stephanie Peters. I like this version, though it was shyer than I prefer in certain aspects of the tale. Rapunzel is true Märchen, a folk tale with many versions, and there are several ways the witch finds out about the prince’s nightly assignations with Rapunzel. One is that she exclaims to the witch – you are so much heavier than the prince! The other is that she complains that her dress has gotten tight on her belly, which alerts the witch she is pregnant. This went with the first, which is a choice that makes sense, given how young this is aimed, etc. The art is perfect: dusty black and whites cut with bright colors only for effect: the rapunzel, her hair, the hair of her daughter. Everyone had the pin-prick black eyes of a Dave McKean illustration, and I liked the creepifaction. Rapunzel is a sad story in some ways – it starts with lost parents, and never finds them again, except in the most oblique way. This did that justice, though the prince’s lederhosen were slightly distracting. 

Thumbelina by Martin Powell. Coming hard on the heels of Rapunzel, I could see the narrative similarity between the two, but Thumbelina is a weird ass story. It starts with the same baby fever as Rapunzel, Thumbelina’s mom begging the local witch for a child, and then getting one as small as a thumb. Thumbelina ends up on adventures that keep threatening her sexually, which freaks me out a bit, but, let’s face it, Andersen was a weird dude. The art was goofy and fun, and I liked it, and it took the sting out of some upsetting situations. 

Snow White by Martin Powell. I hated the art so much on this one, I could barely appreciate the twist Powell took on the story, one that I thought was cool. Everyone looks like freaking Bratz dolls, however, and that is hard to forgive. Anyway, Snow White’s prince has been enchanted to be the mirror, and his escape from enchantment, and his involvement in the familial psychodrama beyond the usual showing up and kissing aspects were pretty cool. Seriously ugly illustrations though. Blech. 

Beauty and the Beast by Michael Dahl. This one was in the middle, as my son would say. The story felt truncated, and the illustrations reminded me of Second Life avatars, but not really in a bad way. But, like Rapunzel, this story is so often retold, and so varied, that this streamlined version wasn’t a bad addition to the narrative river. (Even though Beauty & The Beast is one of the salon-born literary tales, like Anderson’s work.)  Plus the Beast reminded me of Domo Kun, which I find adorable. 

The Princess and the Pea by Stephanie Peters. This story will never be one of my favorites, but this did the best it could. I’m just never going to love a story of royal exceptionalism, bound up with the concept of the “true princess”. Just, barf. But I liked the Edwardian anime sense of the art, and the comic rapid-dating of the middle section, which is something.

I know I have complained before about not being able to find good comics for the middle-grade set – the library seems to have craploads of Scooby Doo, Jughead, and Scrooge McDuck (why?) and not much else. This collection hits a sweet spot for the kiddies, and my daughter bugged me all day Sunday until I read the whole thing to her, one story at a time. Comics are cool for the pre- or just-literate; they bridge a gap usually filled by tv. So, I’m going with a solid recommendation, ‘specially for kids, just because this was so perfectly pitched for my daughter. Us grown-ups likely won’t be amazed, but amazement has ages like anything else.