Ack! What Have I Done?!

Oh no! How did I get myself into this  mess?  You’ve probably done the same at one time or another–thought you were safe, just picked a title off the shelf with no prior knowledge of it, right?  So you start reading this randomly chosen book, and you find it’s really good, you’re completely engaged, when suddenly you realize–it’s the first in a series, and the second one hasn’t been published yet!

  

I hate it when I do this to myself.  Oh well. The book in question is called The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. I’ve read Black’s Doll Bones and vowed to read more of her work, when this popped up on the shelf in front of me.  

The basic story is that there’s a magic school (the Magisterium, also the series title) that kids with special talents are going to, and Callum really doesn’t want to go.  All the other children treat their selection as a special honor, but not Callum.  He tries to fail his entrance test, but they choose him anyway. From as far back as he can remember, Call’s father Alistair has told him that the Magisterium is evil, that it uses children, that the teachers don’t care about the children, and that magic is nothing but trouble. But now that Call is stuck attending the Magisterium (you can’t refuse to go), he finds that he’s enjoying himself.  Yes, it’s unpleasant to be underground all the time (think boarding school in caves), and the teachers can be demanding, but the food is really good, and for once he doesn’t stick out as the weird kid (he’s got a permanent limp from a childhood accident). He’s got a talent for using magic, and for the first time ever, he’s making real friends who care about him.  This is confusing, and makes him feel disloyal to Alistair, who is still adamantly opposed to the school and trying to find a way to get Callum home.

A Prologue hints at why Alistair is so bitterly opposed to the use of magic: as a young mage, Alistair was the one to discover that the Enemy had tricked the Magisterium and its army, so that while their greatest warrior mage waited on the battlefield, the Enemy slaughtered the women and children in the Magisterium’s hideout. The only one left alive was Alistair’s infant son, Callum, and if his wife’s dying message was to be trusted–“kill the child”–he should have died as well.

I really enjoyed the complexity of this story, how the sides of good and evil are unclear, and even though it’s about magic, that experience of trying to figure out who to trust in the adult world when you’re a kid is all too familiar.  That transition period that you go through when you realize you can’t just rely on your parent(s) to figure out the world for you, it’s an important time.  Lucky for Call he’s got real friends now to help him.  I look forward to reading the next in the series, which is supposed to be out in the Fall, so I shouldn’t complain, I don’t have to suffer too long, and I’m already on the library’s waiting list for it. 

When Is It”Meh”?

So I’ve been reading, yes, and even finishing a few more books since last post, but really, are any of them that great?  I am not sure if it’s me, feeling depressed in the midst of a dreary winter–I kind of think it is, because I’m almost always excited about books.  But I do wonder sometimes, is it me or the book that’s just “meh”? Have you ever felt like that? Sometimes I think it’s just bad timing and I miss a good book because I’m in the wrong frame of mind for it.  It could be depression, or it could be unpleasant personal circumstances that the book reminds me of, or it could be “a bit of undigested tofu,” to slaughter Dickens.

mrs poe cover

A friend loaned me Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, ostensibly a fictional version of the real cousin of Edgar Alan Poe, whom he really married.  At first I was into it, and I rather like the fragile, intense, strange creature that Cullen has created as Mrs. Poe.  And that Mr. Poe is sick to death of everyone asking him to recite “The Raven,” a publishing sensation but far from his own favorite.

Alas, I’m halfway through the book and I can stand no more.  The problem is not Mrs. Poe, but the narrator, who is a woman trying to break into the literary circles of New York with little success.  She meets Mr. Poe and is instantly smitten.  I really hate it when people are smitten, don’t you?  They seem to lose all self-respect.  And perspective.  So now all she does is obsess over Mr. Poe and her feelings towards him.  Oh, and did I mention that she’s also married?  No matter that her husband seems to have left her high and dry with two kiddies to raise alone.

What’s worse is that Mr. Poe seems to return her feelings.  Ugh.  Why can’t we just focus on the weird relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Poe? That’s what I wanted to read.  So, meh.  Farewell, Mrs. Poe.

doll bones cover

I finished Doll Bones about a week ago and it was one of those books that felt extraordinary, but like a secret that no one else would understand.  I felt like it spoke to me rather personally and that probably no one else would really get it.  Which I know is wrong! Because it’s a popular book already (that’s how I found out about it) and so a lot of people are probably feeling the same way I did.  Isn’t that funny how that works?

Doll Bones is a what I’d call a middle-grade novel.  I was just talking to another Mom today about how so many middle-grade kids are reading young adult books now, but I think this is a standout in that it is about and would appeal to middle-grade kids.  It’s about that transition you make from being a little kid to a bigger kid, to pre-teenage. But it doesn’t beat you over the head with the message that “aw, you’re growing up.” I’d like to peer into Holly Black’s mind to see how she comes up with such crazy adventures.  There’s a creepiness factor that’s really fun in this story, and I like that she doesn’t resolve everything in the end.  I mean, it’s resolved enough, but she doesn’t wipe away all the magic.

The story is of three friends living in the same neighborhood who are in families with varying degrees of dysfunctionalism, and you’re just so glad they have each other to play with. Poppy, the youngest, is in awe of an antique porcelain doll that her mother keeps in a glass-fronted cabinet, not to be touched and certainly not to be played with (you picture Mom going on Antiques Roadshow, full of hope).  Poppy and Zach and Alice all weave stories around this imaginary queen, using other dolls (and action figures) to play out their adventures.

Zach’s father, who has been absent the last few years but recently moved back in, makes a serious misstep when he tries to grow up his son by chucking his favorite toys–the action figures he uses to play with Alice and Poppy.  Dad thinks Zach is too old to be doing imaginary play. And of course he wants Zach to do more sports, to be manly (this is a parent I loved to hate, although he does eventually become more three-dimensional and less hateful). Zach is so upset with his father’s actions that he can’t even speak about it to Poppy and Alice because he’s afraid he’ll burst into tears.  So he tries to pretend that he just doesn’t want to play anymore.

Meanwhile, the game escalates when Poppy has a vision of the doll talking to her like a ghost, telling her where she wants her bones–the doll–properly buried.  The three friends end up going on this quest together, and along the way, they realize their relationships with each other are changing, and that’s hard.  I’m making it sound very Oprah-esque, and it’s not. Black makes convincing observations of their motivations and thought-processes:

In the end, [Zach] wasn’t sure if he went because he half believed in the ghost already or because he was used to following Poppy’s lead in a story or simply because leaving allowed him to run away and still believe he could come back.

If he wanted.

Their quest is not without its perils–creepy guy on the bus, police nosing around, a Huck Finn-worthy jaunt down a river, and much more.  Breaking into a library was one of my favorite bits.  And that doll is Miss Creepypants.  She seems to move when no one is looking, and other people react to her presence as if she’s another child, the friends notice.

For my Masters Thesis in school, I wrote a middle-grade novel, about this same kind of coming of age transition, with friendships changing.  I haven’t looked at it since I graduated, because at the time I had a personal tragedy that sort of wiped out everything else.  For the first time since then, reading this book made me want to go back to mine and work on it, to start the rewrite.  That’s a big thing for me.  Thanks, Holly Black.  And I’ll definitely be reading more of your books!