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Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack (US cover: Soho Press, 2013)

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is a fantastic and unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it. On the surface, the story is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.

Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley  — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel.  We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.

The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.

The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.

JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.

Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?

Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.

Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?

An interview with Mike McCormack

This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.

Broadly speaking, there are two camps into which depictions of fairies can be divided: the cute and the capricious.  Hollywood has done the first to death; after all, fluff and feathers seems to be what sells on the aisles of Toys-R-Us. The other view is what I think of as “real” fairies, the sídhe of Celtic myth and legend: unpredictable, inscrutable, and dangerous. The first is often the one that seduces us as kids, and most people never realize there’s another altogether more plausible type. In her unusual memoir, Faery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World, Signe Pike uses the spelling faery to indicate the darker creatures of myth and legend, rather than the fluff of popular culture.

A fairy ring is any free-standing circle of trees. In Ireland, most farmers will not cut them down even when they take up valuable space in a field. Signe Pike tells a tale of one ring frequented by a faery disguised as a big black dog. The ring was eventually bulldozed, but decades later a large black dog can regularly be seen where the ring once stood.

Having grown up in rural Ireland, I’ve always been more in tune with the darker faery stories (perhaps because my childhood home is literally equidistant between a fairy ring and an old churchyard) and really only caught up with the world of Disney fairies after becoming a dad. So, Pike’s interest in real faery lore interested me, and her skeptical but still eager to believe perspective struck a chord.  She was quite concerned that she might encounter bad “spirits” in some of the hot spots of faery lore, and this serves to both make the reader warm to her voice and hints at possible drama later in the book.

In case you’re not familiar with the caprice of non-Disneyfied faeries, there’s a chilling short story (one of my favorites) by Sylvia Townsend Warner (“Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain” in her collection The Music at Long Verney) about a man in a small English village who goes cycling with an attractive young woman from his draper’s shop. Mr. Mulready is obsessed with a piece of church music about nymphs. He wanders around thinking about them, wishing to meet one, and abruptly realizes a young women who works for him embodies his ideal of a nymph. They come upon a wood and stop to rest. Up to this point, the reader suspects this to be a tale of an older man seducing a young woman, although Mr. Mulready does not act particularly lecherous. The woman, whom he thinks of as his nymph, hardly speaks, except to declare that she is perfectly happy in the woods. As Mr. Mulready starts to leave, the nymph stops at a blackthorn tree (an auspicious tree in Celtic lore) and simply vanishes, the implication being that she was a fairy living for a time in the human world and has now made the decision to return to her realm. The man is left devastated because he knows she will be regarded as a missing person, and as he, her employer, was seen by the inhabitants of the small town walking into the woods with her, from then on he’ll be regarded as a killer and his life as he knew it is over. It’s a devastatingly sudden twist and powerful ending. (Sylvia Townsend Warner published one standalone collection of her faery stories, Kingdoms of Elfin. It’s sadly out-of-print, but brilliant. Her faeries are not your average faeries.)

The nymph in Warner’s story is not evil, she’s simply being true to her nature without thought for what that might mean for anyone in the human realm. The real faeries of the British Isles do things for their own reasons. There is often a price to be paid by mortals who get involved (no matter whether deliberately or accidentally) with Faery, and this is the world of magic, mystery and sticky ends that Pike is both fascinated with and frightened by.

After a close encounter with a mysterious creature and learning about Los Aluxes (Mexico’s equivalent to faeries) on a trip to Cancun, Pike’s childhood interest in fairies is fully reawakened. A couple of years later, she finally takes a long-planned trip to the British Isles to check out some of the famous sites of fairy lore. Along the way she sprinkles in stories of her friends, fellow seekers, and the people she meets along the way. Faery Tale is a winning, curious story of discovery and mystery; one can really feel Pike’s excitement as she describes sitting in a dark garden in Glastonbury inviting fairies to make themselves known, and her fear as she gets lost in a forest on the Isle of Man and comes across a derelict house with an aura of evil about it.

As somebody who’s spent years exploring old ruins and overgrown tombs, I was very interested in what Pike writes about the etiquette of exploring faery sites. She asks leave from the spirits of a place before entering and believes that everything that lies within a fairy ring or grotto belongs to the faeries, and should be left there. I’ve always refrained from souvenir collecting out of a belief that ruins belongs to us all and should be left as found for the enjoyment of the next visitor, but I’ll be careful in future to make the point to my kids that even the odd rocks and beautifully colored leaves belong to the spirits of a place (as I think of them — Pike would call them faeries, and there’s probably no real difference) and should be left alone. I think that’s a good practice whether one believes in faeries or just wants to respect the dead. Happily (or luckily) we’ve long been in the habit of leaving gifts for the fairies, as we’ve been building fairy houses in the woods or wherever seems to need one for years (mainly thanks to Tracy Kane’s wonderful picture books: Fairy House, etc.).

I read the first 200 pages of Faery Tale in one sitting and came away amazed this book wasn’t topping bestseller lists and being devoured by every Eat, Pray, Love devotee. The freedom she expresses while following her dreams and discovering places she’d only read about before is infectious, and you really want her to succeed, to encounter faeries and get some answers. However, the next day I came back to finish the book and discovered why it hasn’t crossed-over to the mass market. Pike’s travel writing is for the most part wonderful: she tells the stories of her encounter in Mexico, her pilgrimage through England, over to the Isle of Man with charm and immediacy. There are many serendipitous encounters and happy accidents along the way and one can easily believe she was being led from one discovery to the next by an invisible hand. When she tries to sum up her travels and reach some kind of conclusion, she falters. It’s clear that although she has had several encounters with unexplained phenomena or creatures, which I’m happy to call faeries, she’s still searching for understanding, for answers.

Pike seems to feel compelled (perhaps by the conventions of the memoir format, or perhaps by the dictates of her editor) to offer up some conclusions, synthesize some wisdom gleaned from the journey, and that falls flat. It feels as if she doesn’t believe she’s found enough answers yet, and for me it would have been perfectly acceptable for her to acknowledge that she still has questions, still seeks to know more, but has moved away from the skepticism and suspicion she first felt. The journey as the all-important process may be a hackneyed given of self-help books, but it’s still completely true and would have been a fitting conclusion to this absorbing chronicle of Pike’s journey into faery lore. Still, that doesn’t spoil the rest of the book for me, and I can honestly recommend it to anyone interested in faeries, celtic lore or travel in the British Isles.

After reading Faery Tale, I’m investigating my own trip to the Isle of Man in order to see some of the places Signe Pike brilliantly describes. And, though I’ve spent decades exploring old Irish ruins and tombs, I think her influence will make me a little more mindful of the spirits of a place, whatever one chooses to call them.

An old Abbey near my family home In Ireland. The picture was taken last June, but I didn't notice the purple blur at the bottom left until after I read Faery Tale and checked out some of Pike's photographic evidence on her blog (link below). I suspect this is "just" lens flare, but could it be a something else?

Lens flare or faery?

Notes

Signe Pike’s website

Faery evidence Pike collected on her journey…

Laurel Snyder’s new novel for middle-grade readers, Bigger than A Bread Box, is much more of a complex read than I usually find in this category (but that just means I don’t read enough MG anymore).

Twelve-year-old Rebecca’s parents separate, and Rebecca gets dragged away from Baltimore, the only home she’s known, to hot, sticky Atlanta and her maternal grandmother’s house. Thrown into a new school, Rebecca feels and acts as if she’s a character in a story, trying on new names, new personalities and new friends to see if anything can heal the hurt she feels. The quirk that separates this book from others about going through divorce is that Rebecca discovers a magical breadbox in her grandmother’s attic that can deliver anything she wishes for (so long as it fits into the breadbox). So, ipods, candy and food from Baltimore are fine, but her Dad is much too big.

As coping strategies go, the Breadbox is fine for a while, enabling Rebecca to bribe her way into the good graces of the cool kids at her new school with candy, but, like anything, too much of a good thing isn’t good for Rebecca. It turns out that the items that appear in the breadbox come from somewhere and are not just created by magic, so Rebecca’s sudden ownership of them has real-world consequences. This is where Bigger than a Bread Box departs from the usual pattern of MG fiction where the confusing world of tween friendship or the necessary lessons of growing up are underlined by the help of some magical item or another and the novel enters the gothic “Here Be Dragons” territory of the Brother’s Grimm. This is the off-the-beaten-track territory where children who get lost in the woods encounter little old ladies who want to cook and eat them, and magical “gifts” bring as much danger as bounty. It feels entirely appropriate that this book should focus on the potentially negative consequences of magical intervention because the subject of the book, Rebecca’s story, is one of the worst a kid can go through: the loss of their home, the breakup of their family, and the crumbling of all their attendant certainties.

The resolution of Rebecca’s story — well, I don’t really want to discuss that because a) it could kill the surprises, and b) I can’t find a succinct way to put it into words.  Bigger than a Bread Box starts out like the “normal” Laurel Snyder novel, then it takes a twist, and then it goes off somewhere completely unexpected. This book challenges readers (both old and young), pushes us out of our “middle grade” comfort zone, and keeps us absolutely glued to every word.

This feels like such an inadequate review for such a powerful book that I‘ve gone back and forth about posting it at all. Part of my uncertainty is that I have almost no direct experience with divorce — I grew up in Ireland, a country with no divorce (until recently) and large, multi-generational families living together — so I feel a little unprepared to discuss a depiction of what is doubtless a terribly shocking and disorienting event. But, I did find this is a powerful book, and a story that would be great for a parent to read with or talk over with their child — whether or not there’s any divorce within the family. I know my own elementary-age kids ask questions about divorce frequently, and my eldest, who’s almost Rebecca’s age, would probably learn a lot from this thoughtful, emotional and completely gripping novel.

Notes

My review of Laurel Snyder’s previous two novels, Any Which Wall and Penny Dreadful.

www.laurelsnyder.com

Once upon a time I was on a long plane flight and an “Irish” film came on. OK, it was more Oirish than Irish: The Matchmaker, a fish out of water story wherein an uptight American (Janeane Garofalo) goes hunting for Irish ancestry in a tiny village in Ireland, and arrives right in the middle of the annual matchmaking festival. It’s exactly the broad collection of stereotypes and blarney that you might expect, but contained one absolutely hilariously true moment for me. Halfway through the film, the main characters are trying to stop and old man on the Aran Islands from pelting them with rocks (don’t ask, don’t ask…). The man is yelling at them in Irish and the American tells her guide to say something to him in Irish to make him stop. Like most Irish men, her guide  hasn’t used a word of Irish since school, so he resorts to the one phrase every Irish person knows: “An bhfuil céad agam dul go dtí an leithreas.”

I cackled with laughter, causing all the people sitting nearby to jerk around and stare at me. (This being the days before individual seat-back TVs, everyone had to watch the same movie.) They had just long enough to wonder if this guy was losing it, and the flight attendants were just reaching for the panic button when the guide translated the phrase for the uptight American, and explained that in Ireland this is how you must ask to go the the bathroom when you’re in school, “otherwise you have to go in your pants.” It’s the one Irish phrase every Irish person knows.  Everyone in the plane cracked up, and the flight attendants put the mace away.

I suspect the same lag-time between readers born and raised in Ireland and those not, will affect reactions to Julian Gough’s excellent novel, Jude: Level 1.

For the last year or more I’ve been laughing my arse off at the Twitter musings of Julian Gough, an Irish writer, musician, and sometimes sharp stick in the rhuemy eye of ye olde Oirish literary establishment.  @JulianGough is one of the people who actually gets Twitter, managing to make it part performance, part honest commentary and part community. After a couple of years of “following” and occasional chatting, I began to feel vaguely guilty that I hadn’t read any of his novels.

Thanks to the wonderful Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, I got my paws on a copy of Jude: Level 1, Gough’s second novel, and it was everything his Twitter persona led me to expect: funny, irreverent and with plenty to say about the “real world” outside of the pages of the book.

In many ways, it seems a bit pointless to try to summarize the plot — it’s the classic case of boy leaves abusive Christian Brothers orphanage, boy falls in love with the first girl he sees, boy runs afoul of corrupt politicians/international arms smugglers/unscrupulous property developers and all hell breaks loose in his quest to find the girl again — because the whole point of a novel is to go along on an adventure for the first time, and many reviews just take the fun out of reading a book. A good novel should be a performance, an adventure, a memorable experience of getting from the first page to the last. (Of course, most aren’t: most are content to get from A to “Zee” via a well-ordered series of meticulously crafted sentences with just the right sprinkling of irony, untranslated foreign phrases and condescension, topped of with a black & white author photo, brainy glasses and a Brooklyn address.)

From the first page you have the impression that Julian Gough doesn’t give a toss about any of that preciousness, he just wants to tell a good story, make you laugh at the absurdity of it all, and if occasionally the joke falls flat or the cultural reference escapes you, the velocity of the story will carry you over these minor potholes like a teenager who’s finally been given the keys to his Dad’s car. Jude: Level 1 is a bravura performance of humor and satire that skewers blinkered Celtic Tiger thinking (and ignorant self-interest of any nationality), the good-old-boy network of Ireland/______ (fill in the blank with whatever nation you hail from), the abuses of the Catholic church and the cliches of coming-of-age tales like this one.

The book begins with a wonderful set-piece satire on worshipful party politics as practiced in Ireland until very, very recently (by which I mean that since the book was published the Irish people did indeed rise up and throw the feckers out — for quite how long they’ll be content to remain out remains to be seen). Our hero, freshly birthdayed 18-year-old orphan Jude escorts a group of younger orphans to a large political rally in rural Ireland. While there, he accidentally disgraces himself and causes the assembled slavering masses to burn down the orphanage in their frenzy to catch and punish him. Suffice to say, the memory of this opening section was making me crack up laughing at inappropriate moments for days afterwards.

Jude’s escape propels him to “the Sodom of the West: Galway City,” when he meets Angela, the girl of his dreams and resolves to win her heart. Mistaking her sarcasm for instructions, Jude believes that if he gets plastic surgery to look like Leonardo DiCaprico and becomes a millionaire she’ll love him forever. Hence he sets out on his quest to win her heart.

It’s possible that the perfect reader for this novel is a male born and raised in Ireland at the start of the 1970s. It may be that if he was not educated at a religiously segregated school, half the humor in the book will fall flat. The pop-cultural references might require him to have come of age in the ‘80s, and if he did not flee Ireland in the ‘90s he may feel the satire falls a little too close to home. But stifling religious dogma is stifling religious dogma regardless of creed, and political corruption and cronyism are endemic the world over, so I suspect readers will know exactly what Julian Gough’s writing about even if they don’t get the delicious humor behind the name Dan Bunne or understand why anointing Roy Keane, Gay Byrne and Dana as the three biggest Irish legends is one of the funniest asides in the book. Jude: Level 1 is a fast-paced, funny and occasionally savagely satirical read, and at worst, non-Irish readers will get the jokes just a beat behind everyone else.

Note

The saga of Jude continues in Jude in London, which is being published just about now.

Update: There’s an “honor” edition where you can download a .pdf, read it, and pay afterwards. A brave experiement. Check it out…

We just changed the display on our seasons table and put the Halloween decorations up. The table  currently combines the signs of harvest and the turning leaves (cornucopia, gourds, Indian corn, acorns, chestnuts/buckeyes) with the fun of Halloween (witches, ghosts, trick or treating stuffed animals). But the highlight -– or at least the items our kids play with the most -– tends to be the box of seasonal books that we put under the table.

A seasons table is a corner/side table/flat surface in your house where you can display the signs, symbols and touchstones of each season for your children to examine, play with and thus learn the importance of each season. For us — in keeping with our ongoing attempts to keep clutter at bay — it’s  also a way to limit the amount of stuff we accumulate. (If we want to add something to the mix, then something else has to go.)

The books that make the cut for the seasons box are the best-loved books for each season, titles that even our too-cool-for-school eldest daughter will curl up for hours reading – even though she’s way too old for the Berenstain Bears or Clifford . If these titles were taking up space on the shelves all year, I’d be sick of the sight of them and coveting the space for something else. When they only come up from the basement for a month or so, it’s a big occasion for our kids, and the shared reading of them adds to the sense of ritual and tradition of each season.

It’s also something of a test kitchen in terms of the quality of the books, as only the favorite books get kept year upon year. And here I’m using quality to mean that elusive quality that keeps kids rereading and enjoying the book over time, not the more-easily identified and debated qualities that determine whether a book wins awards or not. So here (in no particular order) are a few of the Halloween/fall/autumn-themed books that my children have chosen to read or have read to them year after year after year.

Pumpkin Soup / A Pipkin of Pepper / Delicious by Helen Cooper

Fabulous artwork and a simple story about teamwork make all the “Pumpkin Soup” books by Helen Cooper essential picture books for this time of year. The clever and detailed art has kept our children interested as they’ve grown up, finding new things each year when they pour over the pictures.

Wild Child by Lynn Plourde

The fall title in Lynn Plourde’s quartet of season books. This story about the changing of the seasons, the end of summer’s heat, the falling of the leaves and the growing chill of autumn is a perennial favorite. It’s somewhat amazing that the publisher has allowed most of the books in this series to go quietly out of print. Wild Child appears to be the only one still available in paperback. Every so often we gift a set of these books to somebody or other, and have to get them directly from Apple Valley Books, who carry the remainder of the author’s copies. Hopefully, the publisher can return them to print or publish a single collected volume at some point.

Angelina’s Halloween by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig

Yes, yes, I know it’s not cool to express a liking for anything that has become a cartoon series – a sin in hip bookselling circles comparable to expressing an enjoyment of anything published by  Disney (which I’ll commit below) — but my girls loved the Angelina Ballerina series, and Angelina’s Halloween is one of the best. The pictures are expressive, detailed and quite lovely, and the story about a big sister who gets tired of her little sister tagging along is something that has had great resonance in our household over the years.

Hidden Pumpkins by Anne Margaret Lewis and Jim DeWildt

My girls never get tired of the “seek and find” type of books. I couldn’t tell you what the overt storyline of this book is, except that everything rhymes. The story isn’t important in any case; the fun of this book is in pouring over the detailed pictures to find all the hidden – and expressive — pumpkins.

The Scariest Monster in the Whole Wide World by Pamela Mayer and Lydia Monks

One of the first books that went into our Halloween box, and one of the best-loved. The story is a timely reminder that kids have tons of fun dressing up for Halloween and the quality of their costume isn’t important. Who cares if you think they look like a freak? If they think they look scary/spooky/awesome, then they feel great. [Note: Appears to be out of print.]

Turtle and Snake’s Spooky Halloween by Kate Spohn

A very simple early reader, the fun of this book is in the memories of our girls reading it when they were younger and hadn’t yet mastered their letters. Our first child couldn’t say the letter ‘S’ for the longest time, so this will forever be known as “Turtle and Nake’s Pooky Halloween” in our house.

The Book of Boo by Marge Kennedy

Here’s the dreaded Disney title… Our kids were big Winnie the Pooh fans at an early age, and yes we were known to pop a video on in order to get twenty minutes peace. Winnie the Pooh’s Book of Boo came along at just the right time. The video is long gone, but the girls still seem to retain a quiet (and surreptitious) enjoyment of the book.

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson & Axel Schleffler

Why isn’t Julia Donaldson as huge in the US as she is in the UK, where 3-4 of her books always seem to be in Amazon’s top 100? Room on the Broom is a charming picture book about a witch and her menagerie (a cat, a dog and a frog) and their misadventure with a dragon who likes to eat witches. The simple, colorful pictures (by Axel Scheffler) are very expressive and not scary at all, the story is told in rhymes that appeal to kids of all ages. There’s enough humorous detail in the picture to reward rereading and encourage kids to pour over the artwork on their own.

The Three Little Witches by Georgie Adams

This is another book that takes a pretty elementary story (three school-age witches who live together and are planning a Halloween party), adds in lots of simple but detail-laden artwork and uses simple words with lots of repetition. The story is too long to be read in a single sitting, so it makes a good book to read over a couple of nights at Halloween, and the language makes this a perfect introductory “chapter” book for kids graduating from early readers. Even my older daughter likes to re-examine the pictures and listen as I read this to her younger sister. As a child’s reading ability grows, they can begin to read this to themselves and will not be intimidated as they can be by more text-heavy early chapter books, nor will they be able to memorize this as with many favorite picture books.

All Hallows Eve by Lisa Sferlazza Johnson and Tucker Johnson

This is the story about Eve, the Halloween fairy, who takes your extra candy and leaves toys instead. It’s a clever and well-spun story that will (happily) have your kids wanting to leave most of their candy for the Halloween fairy.

A possible addition to the Halloween box his year may be On a Windy Night by Nancy Raines Day and George Bates. It’s a slightly scary tale of a boy making his way back through the woods after trick or treating. He’s alone – our youngest immediately made me promise she’d never have to trick or treat alone – and his imagination runs away with him as he imagines every rustling leaf to be a monster and every bare tree to be a skeleton. The art work is clever, full of suggestive shadows and atmospheric embellishments. The clouds take on monstrous shapes, the bare tree branches seem to reach out toward the boy and the moonlight makes a cornfield appear to come of life. Whether the book was too suggestive and scary for my youngest remains to be seen, but she did appear to greatly enjoy the story and art on first read.

It’s quite cute to see our oldest, who has recently been devouring The Penderwicks and Kate Di Camillo’s oeuvre on her own, reading through a stack of old favorite picture books, or reading them to her sister. It remind us how far we’ve come as a family, how much our girls have grown, and keeps us hunting for the next fun reading experience.

My kids have entered that nebulous no-mans-zone known as the middle grade (or tween) years: too old for simple chapter books (like The Magic Tree House series, for example), but too young to demolish YA books about vampires by the dozen. Most of what I know about children’s books I’ve learned with them, as I come with fresh eyes to each stage along the developing reading abilities.  In the course of the past year, we’ve come across one wonderful author whose books are perfect for this in-between stage, Laurel Snyder.

I try to read books that I think my kids will be interested in before I pass them along (a goal that’s not always possible). Having heard good things about Laurel Snyder’s Any Which Wall on Twitter, I read it, thought it was good (but maybe a little “quiet”  after the early Harry Potter books with flying broomsticks, three-headed dogs and evil wizards, which we’d recently finished) and settled down to read it with my eldest daughter over a few nights.  I quickly learned that middle grade novels are deceptively simple. While there may not be a lot of car chases and explosions, there’s a ton of stuff going on below the surface (developing self-image, the politics of friendship, learning to navigate in the real world, peer pressure, changing relations with younger siblings) and my daughter picked up on these right away. What seemed a simple — although charming — story to me: four kids spend the summer together in a small Iowa town where they are perfectly safe to bike wherever they want and stay out exploring the woods all day, was an exciting adventure, with a large dose of the “wouldn’t it be great/scary if I could do that” and a clever lesson that magic, though fun, could never be as simple as it seems in books, to a 9-year-old.

The wall of the title is a wishing wall that the kids discover in a cornfield. There’s no manual, no instruction book, and no elderly, bearded wizard to hold their hands, so they have to discover what it is and how it works by accident, through trial and error, and most importantly by using their imaginations. They end up taking several trips in time through the wall, but each turns out to be different than they imagine (medieval castles were very dirty, smelly places to live in, even for princesses; the wild west was a dangerous place for kids and pets; and the worst pirate in the world is nothing like Jack Sparrow). My daughter really responded to the freedom the kids had to explore, to puzzle things out and reconcile the different needs, fears and interests of four kids of different ages. Since we finished Any Which Wall last year, my daughter has chosen to give it to many of her friends for their birthdays — which seems to be her ultimate seal of approval.

Laurel Snyder’s new book, Penny Dreadful, is another wonderful adventure for middle grade readers. “Almost-ten”-year-old Penelope Grey appears to have everything going for her: she lives in a huge brownstone, her parents attend charity balls, and  Penelope is raised by a tutors and nannies. The problem with this picture is poor Penelope is colossally bored. One day, as if she’d just discovered a magic lantern with a genie inside, Penelope wishes that life were more like a book. The next day, her father quits his job to write a novel and the family quickly slide into, not poverty exactly, but they’re heading down that road pretty fast. When her mother inherits an old house with some eccentric tenants in rural Tennessee, Penny is happy as can be because she appears to be living inside an exciting adventure story at last. However, life stubbornly refuses to yield a tidy method of restoring the family fortunes: her father finds writing harder than he imagined, Penny’s hunt for Briscoe Blackrabbit’s fabled treasure isn’t as lucrative as she hoped, and the best job her mother can find in their small town is as the municipal garbage collector. Without spoiling things, suffice to say that the resolution to the story is much more realistic and practical than Penny’s romantic schemes. The book is a great read for any child whose family is dealing with financial strain or changed employment circumstances.

The quiet strength of Penny Dreadful is once again the way the characters interact, the relationships between the eccentric, often elderly tenants and the crowd of rambunctious children that have the run of the place all summer. Penny’s parents try to shield her from their financial worries, but Penny’s a perceptive kid, even if she lacks the experience to know that treasure hunting is an unlikely way to restore her family’s fortune. Also like in Any Which Wall, there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when kids could have the run of the forest, fields and rivers of a small community which will fascinate today’s over-scheduled and never-unsupervised children. (There’s also an hilarious subplot about a boy whose over-protective parents are protecting him from a host of imaginary food-allergies. Anyone who has ever read a parenting book — or been cautioned against sharing food at lunch time — will enjoy the children’s scheme to prove to his parents that he’s a perfectly healthy child.)

I’ll leave the last word on this wonderful novel to Down-Betty, a former wild-child now one of the eccentric, elderly tenants, who cautions Penny that “Life gets too busy for doing things once you grow up. We grown-ups often miss out on the very best things because we’re so busy being grown-ups.” Like Down-Betty’s observation, Penny Dreadful is at once a celebration of the unfettered joy of childhood, an acknowledgment that it isn’t always possible or necessarily advisable to hide the realities of life from your kids, and a reminder that we could all do with a little of the fearless sense of possibility and optimism of young children.

Links:

Laurel Snyder’s blog.

Disclosures:

I’ve met Laurel Snyder once. She is as funny in person as you would expect from her novels.

I received a review copy of Penny Dreadful from the publisher.

Milk, Sulphate and Alby StarvationMilk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation was Martin Millar’s first published novel. In the US, it appears that we are getting Millar’s books in something like a reverse order, starting with the brilliant The Good Fairies of New York, then the equally enjoyable Lonely Werewolf Girl and Suzy, Led Zeppelin & Me. After these three wonderful books, Millar’s US publisher, Softskull Press, brought us the sordid tale of Alby Starvation.

It’s been worth the wait, because Millar’s trademark focus on the poor, the dreamers and the slightly unhinged is evident in his first novel. Small-time speed dealer Alby Starvation has unwittingly become something of a minor celebrity because he’s given up milk and found this has (somewhat) improved his health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the milk marketing board is not pleased. They blame the publicity surrounding Alby’s “cure” for depressing the sales of milk, and given that profits must be maintained, they hire a hitwoman to assassinate him. (This was written at the height of “Greed is Good” conservatism in the 1980s, when government agencies hiring thugs to do away with the inconvenient poor didn’t seem like much of a stretch.)

Alby is far from a saint or a anyone’s idea of a hero, but he does have a circle of friends and acquaintances in Brixton (at the time the last refuge for the young, wanna-be-gifted and broke in London) who depend on him for one thing or another — mostly a quick fix — but also for a more basic human need, companionship.  This motley cast — drug addicts, dreamers, depressed shop managers, more-successful drug dealers, and a treasure-hunting professor — provide much of the charm and amusement of the novel with their dogged pursuit of various crazy dreams and schemes. The Good Fairies of New YorkAnyone who enjoyed Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (the book, not the movie) will enjoy the obsessive, slightly maladjusted personalities that populate Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation. Fans of The Good Fairies of New York will recognize Millar’s habit of showing us each character’s cherished plan or their tentative steps at living life on their own terms, and then gradually bringing each closer together until their individual paths either interlock in something approaching harmony or knock somebody else’s dream completely out of orbit.

Even though this is an early novel and some scenes and plotlines are a little raw, Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation still contains everything I love about Martin Millar, his warmth, his clear-eyed view of the basic decency of most people, his love of the dreamers who dare to look to improve their lot in life, and his ability to laugh at the insanity of our world.

Links

Martin Millar’s blog.

Martin Millar’s latest book is Curse of the Werewolf Girl.

I helped interview Martin Millar over at jennIRL.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Milk, Sulphate & Alby Starvation from the publisher.

Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Franny Chapman is eleven and her world is falling apart. The world is transfixed by the Cuban Missile Crisis. They have nuclear attack drills at school, her Uncle is obsessed by communists and wants to build a bomb shelter in the middle of their lawn, her older sister is away at college, her best friend has suddenly become her enemy, but most of all, Franny is really, really nervous about her first boy-girl party.

Deborah Wiles deftly weaves speeches, song lyrics and pictures from 1962 to create an immersive tapestry of a pivotal year in American history. Kids who prefer realistic novels will love Countdown because the writing puts you firmly in Franny’s shoes, while the documentary passages and images between chapters teaches you all you need to know (and probably all Franny did know) about the politics and current events of the time. Countdown‘s many pictures and innovative layout should appeal to reluctant readers and kids increasingly used to finding information online. The novel’s fast pace and child’s eye view gives the reader the feeling of being in a moving vehicle hurtling towards disaster, and while you sense you should and maybe could do something to avert disaster, you just don’t know how to drive yet.

Countdown is the first in a projected trilogy of novels about the sixties by Wiles, and I can’t wait to read the next, and discuss it with my kids.

Links:

Countdown was named an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Bookseller’s  Association.

Deborah Wiles’ resources relating to the world of 1962, including a playlist of music featured in the book and the original “Duck and Cover” video that explained nuclear attack to school children.

Deborah Wiles tells us about Countdown in her own words:

When I joined Twitter over a year ago, one of the first things I learned about was Salt Publishing‘s Just One Book campaign. Evidently Salt, like many small publishers, was in trouble, and this was their approach to try to raise awareness and sales. The meme went around the literary community quickly, and drew a lot of attention to Salt’s books. I’d never read any of Salt’s authors, so I went and checked out their website, read some of the poems and decided to support them by purchasing my one book: Siân Hughes’ The Missing.

Hughes’ poems are excellent. They mine the regret and sadness of loss: loss of love, loss of dignity, loss of a job, and most poignantly, the loss of a child. I have no idea if Hughes’ life has taken any of these turns, but the poems feel devastatingly real, the book having an air of confession and intimacy–often relieved by a dark humor. If this is the caliber of Salt’s publications, I thought, I wanted more.

Read “The Send Off” by Siân Hughes, which won the Arvon International Poetry Competition 2006.

Watch Siân Hughes read several excellent poems from The Missing:

After reading an article in The Times about several young British poets  (“The Facebook Poets”) I became interested in reading more of Olivia Cole’s   poetry. Her debut collection, Restricted View, received some generous praise from Clive James and Cole was instantly being compared to Sylvia Plath (for her sake, I hope that doesn’t turn out to be entirely accurate). Thankfully, the poems themselves do live up to the hype, and fully deserve praise and readers.

Olivia Cole writes intoxicatingly about young love, first love, the excitement of discovery, and the general thrill of being young. (She writes about the end of relationships, about regret and failure, too, but it’s the celebratory poems that really stir the imagination and linger in memory.) The subject matter of the most-memorable poems almost makes Restricted View the thematic yin to The Missing’s yang. Cole’s work proves she’s not the party girl that the day-job as a literary and “party scene” columnist for a British paper might suggest.

Read “Matinee Idol” by Olivia Cole,  one of my favorite poems in Restricted View.

I’m often disappointed to find that new books of poetry from established poets only contain one or two truly memorable (to me, anyway) new poems. That’s not a problem with the work of Siân Hughes and Olivia Cole, both are curious, creative poets who write about a range of events and emotions. I don’t know anything about the biography of either beyond that on the dust jackets, so I can’t know if the poetry comes from great feats of imaginative empathy or from bitter experience, but the work convinces, the poems have the feel of truth, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.

Watch Olivia Cole read two poems from Restricted View:

I’m contemplating which Salt poetry collection I want to read next, and I’d welcome any suggestions.

The news that Richard Bausch has been award a Dayton Literary Peace Prize for his novel Peace, made me dig through the archives for the blurb I wrote for it last year.

Peace is the intense story of the long night of the soul faced by a  three American GIs when their sergeant casually murders an Italian civilian while on patrol behind enemy lines in the last year of WWII. Their struggle to do the right thing, to understand whether one more killing makes a difference during the insanity of war, reflects our own uneasiness at the messiness of conducting a war, no  matter how justified, and shows that though the technology of war and the speed of reporting it may have changed, the basic moral confusion and chaos remains. This will be of great interest to  military history buffs, military families, as well as lovers of fine writing. Peace is strong liquor; a visceral, intense reading  experience, which brings on a mellow reflectiveness.

I’m glad to see it winning the award.

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