The Borrowers by Mary Norton

What a very special treat. Thank you, Julie, for this gift.

I loved this book as a child, the series in fact, and I remember that my mother blamed the small missing items in our household on the Borrowers. They are a part of my childhood mythology. As I type these words, I have only just lost a low-ankled white sock in the wash, and am hoping it will still turn up, but maybe I have Borrowers now.

This is a children’s book, I’m thinking grade school ages, and I don’t read a ton of books of this sort; I wonder if I’d appreciate it as much if I approached it as an adult without memories… but what a charming and comforting book I find it now. The Borrowers are a little people (the patriarch is “about as tall as a pencil”) who live in the floors and walls and hidden spaces of the big houses that belong to the “human beans.” They have a society of their own, and it is part of their worldview that the human beans exist to serve the Borrowers, who make a living by “borrowing” from the beans (Not stealing! because the human beans exist just for this purpose). Pod, the father, makes button-boots out of kid gloves. Homily, the mother, is very proud of her sitting room wallpaper (scraps of letters out of waste-paper baskets), and carpet (blotting paper). And Arietty, our protagonist, their fourteen-year-old daughter, sleeps in a bedroom made of two cigar boxes. The family has postage stamps hung on their walls, like paintings. They eat tiny scraps and sips of the human beans’ meals: leftovers, if you will.

The story was familiar to me, but the fine details pleased me all over again. Pod borrows, Homily frets, and Arietty dreams. The child has lived her whole life beneath a floor, and yearns for a wider world. But when she gets access to it, she gets closer to the human beans than any Borrower should, and this threatens the safety of everyone she loves. There is danger, rising action, and a moment of truth: will the human beans turn out to mean ruin, or salvation? Is it better after all to live beneath the floor, or venture out?

The frame for this story, sort of like in The NeverEnding Story or The Princess Bride, takes up little enough room at the start that we almost forget about it by the time we return to it: a young girl named Kate sews with an elderly relation, Mrs. May, while the latter relates the events, of how Arietty and her family got into such a pickle, and what might have become of them. This allows for some lovely remarks on the nature of story-telling. As this young girl protests the uncertainties:

‘Kate,’ she said after a moment, ‘stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It’s just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them.’

‘But not at this kind of point,’ said Kate.

And fair enough, Kate, no one likes to be left hanging. That’s why there are sequels: this is in fact a series of five books. Realistically, you know I’m not going to get to the others any time soon, but as I closed the covers of this much-loved book, I wanted to jump straight into the next one. There’s nothing like a parallel world to spark the imagination.


Rating: for its age group, 9 safety pins.

movie: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I’m so glad I went to see this new Disney film of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel. It was admittedly not a perfect translation of the book into movie form, but that’s often just not possible, especially in a sci fi story like this one; it can be hard to not expect perfect reproduction when we love a book, but adjusting expectations is an important part of enjoying the movie version. There’s a reason they call it adaptation.

It’s been a few years since I reread the book, and I thought this site did a decent job of summing up some of the book-to-movie changes. I appreciated the modernizing details, including Mrs. Who’s quotations, the awesome soundtrack, and the general setting. I also count it as a modernizing detail that the Murrys became a multiracial family. Storm Reid was an absolutely inspired casting choice. This is a visually stunning movie, with resources clearly invested in costumes and colorful CGI; and the actors are all gorgeous people to boot. (The multiracial cast has made this more a story for everyone than it used to be, but it’s still a story of beautiful people, even if they’re now beautiful people of a range of skin tones.) Eye candy, without a doubt. And a star-studded cast: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis!

My personal memory, or shall we say impressions, from the novel (and it’s been a while) involved more math and science than came into play in the film. As the Den of Geek’s reviewer noted, Meg was more of a nerd in the original. And I’d count this change as a real loss: to glorify nerds is a noble aim. I did love that she had to use her faults, had to refer to her own shortcomings in order to overcome a challenge. On the other hand, appealing to the love of another as her salvation, rather than loving herself, felt like a slightly less positive message for young girls (which I do read as partly the aim of the story, in either form).

Visually beautiful, enjoyable, uplifting, fun, and feel-good. Totally worth taking your sons and daughters to go see. And for that matter, take yourself: I went to a nighttime showing and we were all adults there, and that’s totally worthwhile, too.

I still need to get back to the rest of the Time Quintet.


Rating: 8 intricate braids.

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

Wonderful, eccentric stray children fill a decaying country estate in this strikingly dark fairy tale.

children's home

Charles Lambert (With a Zero at Its Heart) offers a startling and adept blend of realism and frightening fantasy in The Children’s Home.

Morgan Fletcher lives alone, served by a housekeeper and a skeleton staff he purposefully never sees, on a sizable estate of fading opulence. He has been disfigured by a mysterious accident; his inherited fortune has equally enigmatic origins. His family history is only hinted at, but apparently contains ugly secrets. His housekeeper, Engel, seems comfortably wise to these difficulties, and when the country doctor, a “sunlike man,” befriends Morgan, he feels a little like himself again. The real difference, however, is the children, who show up one by one as if out of the air, some of them mere babies on the stoop. Morgan is wonderingly delighted to find himself surrounded by youngsters, whose playful noises echo often through the house, but who are strangely silent when he wishes for silence. These are not ordinary children, but Morgan has had no contact with the wider world for many years and is slow to question their behavior. They seem to seek something within his house and simultaneously seem to know his past already.

Lambert opens with plausibly lifelike scenarios and proceeds with careful pacing through the Fletcher family story. The line between reality and illusion is as imperceptible to the reader as it is to Morgan, until the final, otherworldly action accelerates with glittering vividness both lovely and grotesque. The Children’s Home is unforgettable: fanciful, chilling and poignant.


This review originally ran in the January 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 questions.

The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren, trans. by Ellen Flynn

In this grown-up fairy tale, a young women’s battles with poverty, violence and neglect are further complicated when a mystical creature enters her life.

merman

Carl-Johan Vallgren’s The Merman, translated from the Swedish by Ellen Flynn, concerns the realistic and heartbreaking circumstances of teenaged Nella and her little brother, Robert; at the same time, it is a dark fairy tale about a mythical creature from the deep and the possibility of resisting evil.

Nella and Robert’s parents are terribly incompetent, uncaring people, more focused on drinking and crime than their children’s welfare. Robert struggles with learning disabilities and is bullied at school; protecting him, getting him the glasses he needs, and his general well-being falls to his sister. Nella is hard-pressed to handle the responsibilities of the household, including cleaning up after her alcoholic mother, about whom she muses, “it was about as hard to judge her as it was to understand her.” This mature and nuanced observation is typical of a girl who, despite her own troubles, seems drawn to others who need her help, such as a disabled man who is one of her few friends.

When the neighborhood bullies begin to threaten Robert with violence, Nella turns to her only ally at school, a boy named Tommy. But contact with Tommy’s brothers presents a new difficulty. They have pulled a mystical being from the ocean, whose otherworldly nature and wordless communication will change everything Nella understands about her life. All at once, Nella struggles with the bullies’ extortion and Robert’s fear; their father is released from prison and brings criminals home with him to disrupt their fragile household; their mother threatens to leave; and the sea creature looks to Nella for help. A burdened but strong and compassionate young woman, she will learn and grow through these tests, and wins the reader’s heart by the time her story reaches the final, hard decisions.

Nella is a compelling protagonist, reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in her miserable circumstances, but with a harder, more adult edge. Robert’s suffering is almost unbearable, but sadly realistic. In Ellen Flynn’s translation of Vallgren’s tale, dialogue can be a bit stiff and formal, especially in the children’s cases, but overall she establishes a tone appropriate to the balance of reality and mysticism in Nella’s story, and the stark ugliness of her life. Vallgren evokes his fantasy element with wonder and detail; The Merman is a singular story. Fans of adult fairy tales and bleak realism will be haunted and enthralled by this novel of human tragedies, and the mystery of what lies beyond.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cartons of cigarettes.

Maximum Shelf: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 15, 2015.


book of speculation

Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation, opens on a precipice: Simon Watson’s house teeters, ready to tumble into the sea. “The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.”

Simon is precariously employed as a librarian, and thus lacks the funds to shore up his family home, from which his family is gone: his mother drowned, his father dead from grief, and his sister, Enola, departed, making her life with a traveling carnival. These days, Simon’s community is composed largely of the next-door neighbor, Frank, a longtime friend of Simon’s parents; and Frank’s daughter, Alice, a library colleague and a reliable constant in Simon’s life.

Enola rarely visits, but happens to be on her way home just when Simon receives a strangely apt package in the mail: an antiquarian book dealer, a stranger, has sent him a very old book which he believes has ties to Simon’s family history. The bookseller, Martin Churchwarry, bought it as part of a lot at auction, purely on speculation. It is the log book of Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles, a traveling circus in the 1790s, and contains the name of Simon’s grandmother. A librarian with archival experience, Simon is ready to treasure this unexpected gift on several levels, but puzzled by the family connection. Still, it draws him in, and by the time Enola arrives, he is thoroughly absorbed. She is unimpressed with his studies, while her obsession with her own tarot cards seems to be growing.

Simon reads and researches the names he encounters in Peabody’s book, calling into service his librarian friends and Martin Churchwarry himself, with whom a strangely easy friendship is established. These efforts yield a disturbing pattern. Simon already knew his mother was a “mermaid”: she could hold her breath for many minutes at a time, a trick she taught to her children. This skill notwithstanding, she drowned herself on a 24th of July. Simon did not know, however, that she came from a line of circus-performing mermaids, all drawn to the water, and that they all died by drowning on the 24th of July. In mid-July, as Enola, acting strangely, returns to their home by the sea, Simon fears that time is running out if he hopes to solve this puzzle and save his sister.

Meanwhile, the events of the past simultaneously engage the reader, as chapters alternate between Simon’s time and that of Peabody’s menagerie. A mystical Russian tarot card reader, an avuncular business-minded circus boss and other colorful characters populate the parallel thread of The Book of Speculation. But in Peabody’s world, it is Amos, a mute bastard who plays the “Wild Boy,” who will most capture the reader’s imagination and compassion.

The strengths of Swyler’s novel are many. The atmosphere of storm-tossed Long Island, with a house that threatens to dive into the sea, is at once fully, realistically wrought and fanciful: Is there a curse? Simon pursues the secrets of his family as his life literally falls apart around him, floor, ceiling, foundation and memories crumbling. Likewise, Peabody’s peripatetic enterprise evokes the promised “magic and miracles,” as well as more prosaic hazards. Each chapter is in itself a small departure into a fantastic, engrossing world. Imagery of woods and animals, small towns and family dynamics are finely drawn; everywhere is the water that frames both stories, from the Long Island Sound that menaces Simon’s home and those he loves to the rivers and streams alongside which Peabody travels. Indeed, if this story has a soundtrack, it is the gurgling waters that promise both succor and ruin to the mermaids’ line.

The Book of Speculation is driven both by character and by plot, as the reader aches for the vulnerable Wild Boy in Peabody’s circus and roots for the crooked romances of Simon’s time, and wonders, as the story develops, whom to trust. To round out an eccentric cast, Enola brings home a boyfriend from the circus who is covered in tattoos and possesses an electrifying special talent, and Simon explores new ground with Alice, the girl next door. Each of the men and women from both timelines proves multi-faceted and compelling. The overall effect is captivating, as Swyler’s delightful, mesmerizing prose keeps the story tripping playfully along through both light and dark moments. As Simon pursues the loose ends and they tie oddly together, Swyler keeps the pressure and the pacing on, as her characters struggle to make connections.

The meandering plot offers many charms: likable, quirky librarians; circus menageries and freak shows; love stories; tarot cards and trickery; mysticism; family secrets; and prickly sibling love–all accompanied by the author’s illustrations. [Swyler also painstakingly hand-bound, gilded and aged her manuscript submissions, in imitation of the old book in her story.] In short, The Book of Speculation, like the book at its center, promises to grasp the reader with a supernatural force and not let go.


Rating: 8 horseshoe crabs.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Swyler.

Screenplay by MacDonald Harris

An enthralling, time-traveling version of Alice, in dual wonderlands of 20th-century Hollywood.

screenplay

Originally published in 1982, Screenplay by MacDonald Harris (The Balloonist) exhibits remarkable sleight of hand with two parallel versions of Los Angeles. Alys was raised in the late 20th century by fabulously wealthy, unconventional parents and orphaned at age 18. With no personal connections and unlimited money to burn, he amuses himself with unusual old books and music and soulless sexual liaisons. An odd old man shows up at his doorstep and requests to rent a room–though no room has been advertised. He introduces himself as Nesselrode, a film producer, and says he can get Alys into pictures.

Soon Alys’s tenuous link to modern 1980s L.A. falters as he steps through a screen into black-and-white 1920s Hollywood with Nesselrode as a surly, time-obsessed guide. In this alternate world, he falls in love with a beautiful starlet, but can they make a life together in her time? Or in his?

In addition to the unmistakable overarching reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harris’s novel recalls the moral questions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Alys himself could have stepped from the pages of The Great Gatsby. Even with such classics for comparison, Screenplay is a masterpiece of darkly playful cunning. Harris’s evocative prose, in Alys’s disturbingly clinical, coldly self-indulgent first-person narrative, is both intoxicating and disquieting; the altered reality here is more sinister and sensual, even erotic, than in Carroll’s Wonderland. The tension in this memorable and singular dreamscape builds with perfect pacing to an ending that raises more questions than it answers.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 toasters.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, trans. by Richard Howard

little princeThe Little Prince is a classic children’s book that has been on my list for some time, so imagine my surprise when it appeared as well in a book I recently enjoyed, Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes. I had no idea that Saint-Exupéry played a role in the Spanish Civil War – apparently he volunteered there as a pilot. This helped The Little Prince jump to the top of my list, and here we are.

As it is a children’s book, it was an easy, quick read, just under 90 pages and full of delightful illustrations by Saint-Exupéry himself. These illustrations are an important part of the story: the power of art, and its greater or lesser power to realistically capture appearances. Apparently my edition is a new translation, by Richard Howard, and comes with newly restored illustrations as well. Howard opens with a brief meditation on the important work of translation that I found thought-provoking.

And then the story itself, which concerns our narrator, a pilot crashed and stranded in the African desert, and the little prince he is surprised to meet there. The prince tells us he has come from his own tiny little planet, far away. He is worried about a very special flower he left there. Thus proceeds the story of the little prince, and our pilot’s somewhat clumsy attempt to help; the prince’s departure, and the pilot’s dealing with it.

The morals here are sweet, as one might expect, and as I hadn’t expected, also offer some words about handling grief and loss. The image of one’s departed friend living in the stars and comforting us from afar is familiar and cozy. The Little Prince also comments on the strangeness of the adult world:

If you tell grown-ups, “I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…,” they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, “I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs.” Then they exclaim, “What a pretty house!”

…That’s the way they are. You must not hold it against them. Children should be very understanding of grown-ups.

Further allegory and comment are provided by the little prince’s bemusement at the confused values of those he meets on his interplanetary travels, before reaching Earth: the king, the vain man, the drunkard, the businessman, the lamplighter, the geographer; and those (considerably wiser) he meets on Earth before the pilot: snake, flowers, and others; and the wisest of all, a fox. It is the fox that teaches him that “anything essential is invisible to the eyes” and that “you become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”

A beautiful story, sweetly told and charmingly illustrated, with layers to appreciate on different readings and at different ages: everything a kid’s book should be.


Rating: 7 boas with elephants inside them.
%d bloggers like this: