A Year of Books: 2012

reading in bedMost of the books I read tend to disappear from my memory within days of finishing – one of the reasons I started writing reviews was to keep a reference log as a reminder.  Some books this year stayed with me, and I can recall a magic 7 that would be worth recommending again:

Bring Up the Bodies: Hilary Mantel’s second historical fiction featuring Thomas Cromwell has me yearning for the last and third book yet to be published.

A Discovery of Witches and the sequel were fast adventures with a brilliant academic who also happens to be a witch who can time travel. Author Deborah Harkness promises a third in the series next year.

Son – Lois Lowry’s long awaited sequel to her award winning The Giver.

The Prisoner of Heaven –  Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Gothic tales are always an adventure.

The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau – Jon Agee’s picture book with pictures that come to life is one to keep on the shelf.

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore must be read on real pages to appreciate the blue.

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson’s fictional history of the American West was short but intense.

What favorites from 2012 do you recommend?

Son by Lois Lowry

Although dystopian future worlds seem to have become popular recently, Lois Lowry has been writing about them for years. If you are a fan of The Giver, you may remember Jonas and his flight to Elsewhere, with a baby boy designated to be destroyed. If you have not read Lowry’s book (or can’t remember its plot), you can still enjoy the drama of the boy’s mother, in her quest to find her boy in Son.

Claire’s world is that amazing futuristic utopia with controlled climates, no insects or rodents, designated jobs (including Claire’s as Birthmother) – emotionless, disciplined, and well-ordered. No anomalies are allowed. Expecting to continue with her new duties in the fish hatchery, after failing to deliver her baby naturally, Claire is surprised that she has feelings for her new-born (someone forgot to give her the pills for impassivity). When she finds her baby in the care facility, he is not conforming well – seems he doesn’t like naps and wants to be held.

On the eve of her son’s fate, he disappears with Jonas, and Claire mysteriously manages to board a freighter ship, fall overboard, and is rescued. Finding herself suddenly in a new world, Claire at first becomes a mystifying heroine, becoming an apprentice to the old woman healer and midwife. Her memory returns when she is assisting in a birth, and her focus becomes finding her son.

The book switches to Claire’s quest – her preparation and training to climb the dangerous mountain that will lead her out of the village and hopefully to the man who will take her to her son – for a price. Lowry details her training, from one-handed push-ups to slippery runs with rocks in her backpack. Her trainer is Einar, a young man, now crippled from his unsuccessful attempt to get out. Her actual climb is thrilling; Lowry will have you gasping at each slip of foot, drop of the glove, and the attack by a mother gull protecting its nest.

After Claire makes a deal with the evil Trademaster, she finds her son, now a young man who is yearning to learn about his roots. But Claire’s trade has left her unrecognizable.

Lowry ends the tale with a satisfying triumph of good over evil, and with a rewarding reveal for her fans who wondered about the fate of Jonas and Gabe.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

Using picture prompts to stimulate writing is a popular device for teachers and creative writing professors, and Chris Van Allsburg’s 1984 The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has long been used to stimulate ideas.  In The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, 14 famous authors attach Van Allsburg’s curious black and white pictures with their own interpretations.

Famous for The Polar Express and Jumanji, among others, Van Allsburg’s books artistically combine his vision with his own stories, but the pictures in Harris Burdick stood alone, with only mysterious captions for each picture – until “The Chronicles” appeared.  With help from Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked), Kate Di Camillo (“Tales of Despereaux”), Jules Ffiefer, and  other recognizable names, including Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, the pictures now are connected to stories – some funny (“Under the Rug”), some disturbing (“Uninvited Guests”), most with strange messages to explain the picture and the caption.  Think the brothers Grimm tales before they were homogenized.

Although the partnership makes for a different kind of children’s book, some stories are better than others – depending on your affinity to the authors:  Lois Lowry’s “The Seven Chairs” with a girl’s talent for rising into the air and Van Allsburg’s “Oscar and Alphonse” about caterpillers who spell, and  Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street” – a house that turns into a rocket ship to save a family from an abusive step-father – my favorites.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that the pictures had been spoiled.  Like great art or poetry, if you have to explain the meaning, something gets lost in translation.

If you’re not familiar with Harris Burdick, do yourself a favor and find the original first; decide what the pictures mean to you – before you read the chronicles of others.

Bless This Mouse

When a Newbery Medalist and a Caldecott Medalist get together to produce a children’s book, you know you are in for a good one.  Lois Lowry and Eric Rohmann collaborated on Bless This Mouse – the tale of a church mouse who leads her followers to safe haven.

Hildegarde, the mouse mistress of St. Bartholomew’s Church, not only protects her flock of over 200 church mice but she also manages to educate them and the reader with lessons on the correct vocabulary for different sections of the church building  – the narthex, transept, nave. Rohmann conveniently includes a graphic for reference, and her resident scholar mouse, Ignatius, a former university library mouse, delivers important research information on the latest mousetraps – scented glue.

When a group of adolescent mice run wild in plain sight of the sacristy ladies, Father Murphy decides to call the exterminator.  Hildegarde’s preventative measures include eating the telephone book so he won’t have the phone number, but the mice mistakenly look for “the Great X” under “x” instead of “ex,” and they are forced to evacuate in the great “exodus” to the church cemetery to wait until the church is safe to reenter.

Lowry humorously personifies her characters with human foibles and misplaced pride, and includes a reconnaissance mission with 52 mice carrying 52 playing cards to disarm the glue traps.   She  neatly wraps up the narrative with Father Murphy’s blessing of the animals, including Hildegarde, on the feast of St. Francis – with a lively negotiation between the mouse leader and the priest at the end.

With Lowry’s narrative and Rohmann’s illustrations, Bless This Mouse is a winning combination – a good book to read aloud – and definitely one that will make you laugh out loud.

When It’s OK Not to Know the Ending

After recently watching the spy thriller, The Debt, I wondered what happened to the characters’ lives next – after the story ended.  With George Clooney’s The Ides of March, the follow-up from the abrupt plot ending is predictable, given the intrigue of politics, but who knows.  Those loose ends reminded me of  books that end without neatly pulling in the loose threads: did the heroine die or walk off into the sunset?  did that rotten guy get his due?  will the boy/girl grow up to find the cure, change the universe, fall off a cliff?

Without a firm ending, the story goes on in my mind – changing outcomes and possibilities…

A few classic ambiguous endings that come to mind:

  • The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
  • The Dead by James Joyce
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

Can you think of any?