Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Book Whisperer and Terry Pratchett’s Early Stories

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Terry Pratchett is a prolific author. He published his first short story at age fifteen. The stories in Dragons at Crumbling Castle were published in 2014, but Pratchett wrote them when he was a teenager. The stories had not previously been published. Pratchett includes his own drawings of the scenes and characters on some pages. In addition, Pratchett, with the hindsight of a widely acclaimed author, adds additional commentary as notes to the stories.

The stories are delightful and fun to read. The dedication is found below:

“For Colin, who spent far too much of his time digging around in dusty cupboards to find all of this material that I had carefully hidden away and very deliberately forgot all about.

And to my younger self, who thought these stories were pretty good…

Oh, I could teach that lad a thing or two!”

The stories have such titles as “Dragons at Crumbling Castle,” the title of the collection as well. Other titles include “Hercules the Tortoise,” “The Great Speck,” and my favorite “The 59A Bus Goes Back in Time.”

Pratchett readers will recognize the word play that characterizes Pratchett’s adult writing. All readers will enjoy the stories for the good fun they bring. In “Edwo, the Boring Knight,” Edwo, the King’s youngest son, must leave the kingdom and seek his fortune. Sadly, Edwo is the world’s most boring person. He takes along Pigsqueak, “a broken-down old donkey” since his two older brothers have taken the horses. Pigsqueak is no ordinary donkey, however, for he can speak. In fact, Pigsqueak can sing; his favorite song begins “Old McWotnot had a Farm, Ee-yore, Ee-yore, Eee.” As part of their adventure, Edwo and Pigsqueak encounter F. R. Golightly, Wizard who proclaims by a sign on his door:

All kinds of spells.

Enchantments, Potions.

Patronized by Royalty.

Also Haircuts, Shoes Cleaned

Very Cheap, Teeth extracted

While you wait.

In “The Abominable Snowman,” a group decides to locate the Abominable Snowmen. On the way to Chilblaine, where the snowmen live, the group encounters “a little mountain stream that ran tinkling over the stones. Bill bent down to fill his water bottle and heard a whirring noise. There was a tiny water wheel in the stream, spinning at great speed.”  The water wheel produces parchment paper on which is written “Q: When is a door not a door? A: When it’s a jar (ajar)” (290). The Joke Monastery is located on the stream along with the Joke Monks who “think the world was created as a joke, so everyone should give thanks by having a good laugh. That’s why they tie jokes to water wheels. Every time the wheel goes around, a joke goes up to heaven” (290).

Look for a subsequent review of The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner, a follow-up volume of additional early Pratchett stories. It is being published in January 2017. As Neil Gaiman says, “a Terry Pratchett book is a small miracle.”

The Book Whisperer Reviews WWII Novel

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Chris Cleve received critical acclaim with the publication of Little Bee in early 2009. He followed up with Incendiary in 2010 and Gold in 2012. Cleve receives high marks from readers and reviewers for “rendering female characters with starling realism” (NPR). I read Little Bee and thoroughly disliked it, so I did not bother with Incendiary or Gold. In 2016, Everyone Brave is Forgiven appeared to high acclaim. Because I kept reading about the story, I decided to give the book a try. I put my name on the wait list at the library and waited. Since the book has received so much praise, it is still in high demand. When the book became available, as so often is the case, about six books I had requested all came available at the same time. I let Everyone Brave is Forgiven go and read the other books, so I had to go back on the wait-list.

The first week of January, Everyone Brave is Forgiven became available to me again. This time, I checked the book out and read it. The back story is that Cleve had a long conversation with his grandfather about the grandfather’s role in WWII. Cleve’s grandfather was assigned to watch over Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s son, during WWII. Cleve’s grandfather went on to describe meeting Cleve’s grandmother and talked about their romance. These stories intrigued Cleve, so he started writing Everyone Brave is Forgiven. In reality, he combined stories from both sets of grandparents and added his own touches to the fiction.

Mary North is eighteen years old when Britain declares war on Germany. She comes from a privileged and wealthy family and is in finishing school when the war begins. She immediately leaves school unfinished, as she says. She is eager to sign up for the war effort and thinks she would make a terrific spy. Imagine her surprise when she receives her assignment as a teacher. Mary decides to make the best of the assignment, however. She reports to Miss Vine to receive her assignment. Miss Vine views Mary as trouble and reluctantly assigns her a class.

The children are being evacuated to the country, so Mary is supposed to go with her young charges and continue teaching them in the country. Miss Vine, however, thinks Mary is too liberal with the children and tries too hard to be their friend instead of the stern teacher Miss Vine thinks the children should have. As the teachers and children are gathered to catch the train to the country, Miss Vine tells Mary that her services are no longer wanted; she is released from duty. Mary is stricken because she has learned all the children’s names! She is especially fond of Zachary, a young black American boy whose father is a musician in a minstrel show in London. Zachary is bright, but he acts out in class. Later, Mary determines he is “word blind,” probably what experts will later call dyslexia. At any rate, before Miss Vine dismisses Mary, Zachary runs away into the empty zoo which has already been evacuated of its animals, an act that Mary finds horrifying that the animals have been evacuated ahead of the children.

Mary brings Zachary back to the fold, but she has promised him that she will look after him while they are in the country. Then Miss Vine dismisses Mary, so she cannot keep her promise and is heartbroken to think that Zachary will believe she is like all the others who torment and tease him. Mary writes to Zachary once the children are settled and he writes back to her. This friendship is important to the story because soon Zachary’s father goes to the country and brings Zachary back to London because the boy’s letters are so heartbreaking as he tells of the teasing and torment he endures from the other children because of his skin color.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven Is complex and rich in plot. Mary decides she will not let Miss Vine win, so Mary goes to Tom Shaw, who is in charge of school for children who have been left in London or returned from the country. Zachary falls in to this category, and Mary persuades Zachary’s father to allow the boy to return to school with her. The school is small and the students are challenged in various ways. Mary works hard to teach them and has made sure to choose a classroom near the basement stairs so she can take the children there if an air raid occurs. She does befriend the children and on Friday afternoons, she allows them a little time to make collages, to play music on a gramophone, or to dance if they choose.

Readers can see that Mary quickly falls in love with Tom. He, too, is smitten by Mary. They soon become lovers with Mary visiting Tom in the garret apartment he has shared with his friend Alistair Heath, who has joined the army. Tom writes to Alistair and tells him about Mary. After some time, Alistair receives leave and returns to London to have dinner with Tom and Mary; Mary brings her best friend Hilda along to be Alistair’s date. Sparks fly between Alistair and Mary upon their first meeting, but they are both loyal to Tom, so nothing happens between them, but Alistair is not very kind to Hilda since she is not the girl he wants. When Alistair meets Tom, Mary, and Hilda in the restaurant, he first assumes Mary to be his date: “The other woman was a knockout, a redhead with peppy green eyes and a reckless, puckish stamp” (140). Then he learns of his mistake. He also says of Mary, “She held his eye nicely and without flirtation, and yet he felt that an acknowledgment was passing between them” (140.

The story moves between Tom, Mary, and Hilda in London and Alistair and his buddies in the trenches of war. Mary has organized the Christmas story with her students portraying the manager scene and at least one parent for each child arrives to see the play on a Friday afternoon. During the performance, the Germans begin bombing near the school. Everyone moves to the basement and the play continues. However, so does the bombing. Zachary becomes extremely fearful and runs up the stairs and out into the street. Both Mary and Tom rush after him. Mary persuades Tom that she should be the one to go after Zachary, so Tom remains behind.

Several streets away, Mary catches up with Zachary and they return to the school. Sadly, the school is no longer there. No one in the building survived even though they were in the basement.

Some weeks later, Mary begins corresponding with Alistair; she tells him she is keeping the garret apartment he has shared with Tom and that Alistair’s few clothes are still there. They begin a steady correspondence, as steady as one can during war time. With Tom’s untimely death, Mary and Alistair are free to explore the spark between them, though neither would have acted as long as Tom lived.

The war continues and life is difficult for both Alistair and Mary. The story has much more depth than explored here. Zachary continues to play an important part in Mary’s life as does Hilda.  Everyone Brave is Forgiven is worth reading. I did find the dialogue a bit too cute at times, breezy might be the better word to describe it. Still, the story is compelling.

The Book Whisperer’s Latest

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Imagine Me Gone is the story of a family, two of whose members suffer from depression, father and older son. To say the story is depressing would be an understatement.

Margaret, an American working in London, falls in love with John, a talented Englishman. Shortly before their marriage, John enters a hospital for depression, not his first visit, but that stay is Margaret’s first inkling of his debilitating depression. Luckily, John manages to function well most of the time.

When the depression hits, John slows down as if his mind simply goes into low speed and his body follows suit. John is talented and bright, but his job history is spotty. Soon, Margaret and John have three children: Michael, Celia, and Alec. The family moves back and forth between England and the US as John tries to hold a job.

I did not like the book and found it hard to read. Michael inherits his father’s predisposition to depression; unlike his father, however, Michael speeds up his speech and activities when the depression hits. He becomes the center of the family, all revolving around him. He is obviously very bright and has an enormous vocabulary which he enjoys showing off.

Michael and Celia team up against Alec when they are children. I found that part unhealthy in that Alec is the youngest, so the other two tease him unmercifully. Michael is also physically cruel to Alec in the parents’ presence and neither John nor Margaret will stop the abuse. I found that disturbing.

Adam Haslett has received high praise. You Are Not a Stranger Here was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Those short stories, too, deal with mental illness. Other awards include Time Magazine’s Five Best Books of the Year and winner of the 2006 PEN/Malamud Award. Haslett’s books have been translated into fifteen languages. Haslett is obviously talented; his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, and National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts.

Haslett’s other work includes You Are Not a Stranger Here, a collection of short stories, and Union Atlantic,

 

The Book Whisperer’s Latest Review

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The Book Whisperer is on a YA reading kick.

What’s in a title? Once Was Lost, 2013, was originally published in 2009 under the title What We Lost. Both titles give insight into the story. Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping inspired Sara Zarr to write the story of a small town gripped with the loss of a teenage girl. The title Once Was Lost suggests that the girl is found. What We Lost hints at perhaps the finding of the girl, but the loss of innocence or trust. Readers will recognize the title Once Was Lost as a line from Amazing Grace:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”

Sam, 15, is the only child of a minister in Pineview, a small town in the middle of nowhere CA. Since her father is a minister, everyone knows his salary and everyone pays attention to what Sam and her family do. Her father is well-liked; he has the knack of knowing what to say to others to calm them, assuage their fears, and make them feel better. Everyone, that is, except Sam. Sam’s mother is in suggested rehab after an auto accident when she was drinking. For most of the book, Sam’s mother is a shadowy figure, conjured up by Sam in times of crisis which occur frequently in the book.

Pineview is in the midst of a heat wave. The air conditioning in Sam’s home is on the fritz; even the ceiling fan in her bedroom refuses to stir the sultry air. The kitchen is almost devoid of food, and the family’s bank account is drained. What else can go wrong?

Jody, a teenager and member of Sam’s father’s church, disappears on a trip to the ice cream store on Main Street. She just vanishes in broad daylight. The church and the town rally to search for Jody and that includes Sam and the church youth group to which she and Jody both belong. Sam joins the search while still dealing with her own loss, her mother’s absence, and her father’s reluctance to talk with Sam about their family. Sam’s father becomes Jody’s family’s spokesperson to the media, so he is spending much of his time at Jody’s family’s home and the church, leaving Sam more alone than ever.

On the first day of the search, the youth group bands together under Erin’s leadership. Erin is the youth leader of the church. During the extended search in the heat, Sam passes out from dehydration. Erin takes Sam home and stays with her until she recovers. Sam’s father wants Sam to stay with Sam’s friend Vanessa, but Sam wants to stay home alone.

Being the pastor’s daughter, Sam feels all eyes on her. In fact, her friends have recently returned from a mission trip to Mexico, but Sam could not go. Her mother tells Sam that the pastor is always asking for money, so she will not let Sam raise the money to take the trip, and the family cannot afford it on their own. The friends all come back from the trip full of enthusiasm for all the good work they have done; Sam continues to be left out. She also knows that even her best friends Vanessa and Daniel go to parties and activities without her because she is the pastor’s kid, leaving her alone.

Once Was Lost explores the loneliness that teenagers often feel. Sam is especially vulnerable since her mother is away and not accessible to her. Jody’s disappearance controls the story. Sam’s father is distant from Sam, always reluctant to sit down and talk about the family.  How does Zarr resolve the story? Read the book!

Sara Zarr lives in Utah where she teaches at Lesley University’s Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. She has published the following novels:

Story of a Girl, Sweethearts, Once Was Lost, How to Save a Life, and The Lucy Variations. Gem and Dixie, her latest book will be published in April and is already receiving critical acclaim from author Sarah Dessen who says it is “a story that broke by heart and put it back together again.”