Sunday, August 28, 2011

Nix, Necromancy, and Novelty: Not too Bad is 'Sabriel'

Nix, Garth. Sabriel. New York: Harper Collins, 2004 (1995).

I'm often frustrated by fantasy writing these days; it has so much to offer, but many of the more recent novels seem simply derivative of their literary predecessors. This is not so with Sabriel (or, if it is, I haven't read said literary predecessors), which manages both to be a novel in genre and to offer something quite fresh: a necromancer, called the 'Abhorsen,' who defies the conventions of the trade, offering closure and finality in place of ghosts and skeletons.

At the beginning of the book, readers are introduced to the Abhorsen, who (of course) turns out to be Sabriel's father. After the passage of a few pages and many years of Sabriel's life, the story begins in earnest while Sabriel is a student at a preparatory-type school far from home; after her father's failure to appear for a visit as expected (he sends instead a spectral messenger), Sabriel must make the exhausting journey home alone, through a cold and desolate Northern land, pursued by a terrifying monster. Once home, of course, her adventures are only beginning, and Sabriel meets Mogget (one of the most unique and charming fantasy characters since the Ents), takes a ride in a magnificent flying contraption called a paperwing, and pursues her father across her homeland and far beyond. Although the story is dark at times, it is also compelling and charming (and worth reading for Mogget alone). Sabriel does have some irksome tendencies, but these are realistic: she is, after all, a teenaged girl, struggling with all sorts of youthful proclivities and maturing along the way; in this respect Sabriel is surprisingly realistic, which is pleasing except when it is frustrating.

I enjoyed this book, but I know several people who were far less impressed with it than I, and it is certainly heavily laden with the magical and the dark, so many readers may prefer to sidestep this text. However, fans of a certain ridiculously popular child wizard should find Nix's novel a good deal better written and more imaginative than books in that other series, and the story is well structured and elegantly written. For fans of fantasy, a perusal of Sabriel is essential.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Plenty of Time for Reading Eager(ly)

Eager, Edward. The Time Garden. Bodecker, 1999.

Edward Eager's literary adventures in child play and time travel never fail to please, and The Time Garden is no exception to this general rule. Here Eager blends history, time travel, and a gentle love of puns into a really splendid children's story about adventure, obedience, and the importance of using language precisely.

I'm hesitant to write a great deal about this book, as it's full of linguistic puns and clever twists that I'd hate to spoil for future readers, but the simple plot has to do with two sets of siblings (Jack, Roger, Eliza, and Ann) who all find themselves spending a summer holiday with their aunt, Mrs. Whiton, in New England (their parents are otherwise occupied in London). While teenaged Jack is off courting half the girls in the northernmost states of America, his younger sibling and cousins rapidly discover the many magical properties of the back garden, and soon find themselves on a whirlwind of adventures.

So long as one objects neither to time travel nor to magical creatures who might facilitate such travel, this is a completely wholesome and delightful book, entirely free from objectionable or questionable content, yet still able to offer an action-packed (and historically informative) story that will delight not only small children, but parents and older siblings who might wish to read along. This would also make an excellent Christmas or birthday gift for young readers who enjoy magic, history, and adventure stories.

Monday, August 15, 2011

'People of the Book': A Book for Book People

Brooks, Geraldine. People of the Book. Penguin, 2008.

People of the Book is clearly written by an author who has had a longstanding love affair with books. On page after page, Brooks provides elegant and vivid descriptions of the unusual 'Sarajevo Haggadah' around which her novel is based, exploring both its modern-day condition and its previous creation and use. Her human characters, from modern day book conservator Hanna Heath to the book's owners in times long past, are also bibliophiles, and the vivid and intimate approaches to the codex throughout the volume should delight any book lover.

People of the Book integrates Hanna's story, which involves a complex love affair and an awkward relationship with her mother, with that of the book she is examining and restoring. As Hanna finds fragments and stains that will give her clues about the Haggadah's history, Brooks intersperses Hanna's discoveries (and frustrating everyday life) with imaginative stories about these older owners. Thus we meet a frightened little girl, a gambling Venetian rabbi, a stubborn doctor, and a lesbian artist, whose interactions with the book each changed it in some fundamental manner. Brooks' relic-based flashbacks are creative and imaginative, and add a fanciful twist that modern readers of older books should appreciate: long will scholars wonder about the first readers of ancient manuscripts, and Brooks' fictitious solutions to these mysteries is satisfying and pleasant.

Despite its elegance and satisfactory creativity, Brooks' novel also occasionally wanders between the banal and the titillating. Hanna's thoughts and actions are constantly affected by her frequent sexual encounters and her frustrating obsession with her family, both of which detract from the greater and more compelling story of the Haggadah. At the same time, the insistent focus on the sinful passions of the book's past owners, rather than an emphasis on their passions for the book itself, detract from the wonderful story Brooks has created around a remarkable codex, and left me wishing I could have read a heavily excerpted version free from the modern issues of obsessive Hannah and the overarching sexual tensions that seem to intrude upon nearly every character's story and impede the story of the book itself.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

'Irish Tenure' Stands the Test of Time

McInerny, Ralph. Irish Tenure. Minotaur, 1999.

Ralph McInerny has been a favourite author of mine for many years. In addition to his rather substantial collection of mystery novels, he has also penned an inventive rewriting of Shakespeare's sonnets and is a renowned scholar in his own field, so I have a lot of respect for his ability to produce effective written work across a wide variety of disciplines. Despite my familiarity with and appreciation for his work, Irish Tenure quite exceeded my expectations.

Set (as is common with McInerny's mysteries) at Notre Dame University, Irish Tenure follows the death of young Amanda Pick, a young professor up for a competitive tenure position and on the verge of publishing an important and coveted discovery of a long-lost work by G. K. Chesterton. (The Chesterton story, alas, was invented just for this novel and has not yet been discovered). McInerny opens with her death, to increase suspense, and then flashes back to introduce a number of interesting (and potentially suspicious) individuals who, in the weeks before Amanda's death, might have wished her a little less present and successful. The suspects are numerous, the additional characters engaging, and the novel as a whole is elegantly crafted not just as a mere mystery, but as a collection of miniature character studies as well. I also appreciated the descriptions of the University Archives and Amanda's research in the Chesterton files, which made me long to visit the archives for myself.

As mysteries go, this is an excellent, clean, and engaging book, and well worth a read. More specifically, it should appeal to academics and those who recall their own studies with fondness, and to those who enjoy a bit of psychological thriller mixed in with the classic detective novel.