Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

A few years ago I had the privilege of working in the library of a well-known children's hospital. I worked with children in all stages of disease, including some who eventually died. And peripherally, I watched their families deal with their conditions. Sally Nicholls' debut novel, Ways to Live Forever, completely resonated with my memories of that time. It is remarkable in capturing the experience of a dying child with a minimum of sentimentality, and with an absolutely convincing first-person narrator.

Sam is an eleven year old with leukemia whose doctors estimate he has a year to live. He has many questions about death, ranging from practical ("does it hurt to die?") to philosophical ("why does God make kids get ill?). Together with Felix, his best friend who is also terminally ill, Sam tries to work out some answers, and also to pack as much living as he can into his remaining time.

I loved Sam as a character. He is inquisitive and thoughtful, and his insights and investigations seem completely right for his age and experience. There is some unexpected humour, as in the seance scene, where Sam, Felix and Sam's sister Ella try to communicate beyond the grave with an ouija board and a jelly bean. They call up the spirit of "Marian Twanet" ("Pack it in! I said. "Marie Antoinette's not spelled like that") who assures them that being undead is "BORING" and that she spends her days drinking gin and eating cake. Sam's not taken in by this fakester spirit, but considers the possibility that his grandfather is keeping an eye on his grandmother from the other side (she smells his pipe whenever she is particularly unhappy). Although the evidence is circumstantial, Sam believes that "if I were grandad, I'd want to visit too."

One of this book's many strengths is how it shows the effect of Sam's terminal illness on his family. Each person has their own way of coping, and how each one responds to this family crisis reveals a great deal. Small triumphs and connections are captured with delicacy, and grief is never allowed to become overwhelming. I did cry at the end, but Sam's death, surrounded by his family, felt very loving. Ways to Live Forever takes us through Sam's journey in a way that feels uncontrived and true.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

And speaking of icy romance...Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is a retelling of one of my favourite romance-oriented fairy tales, the ancient Scandinavian story "East of the Sun and West of the Moon". I first came under the spell of this story when I read the version so breathtakingly illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Jessica Day George's version spins out this tale into a novel comparable in quality to such favourites as Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine or Beauty by Robin McKinley.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow follows the story of a young woman called Pika (or "lass") who lives "long ago and far away, in the land of ice and snow." Her mother dislikes her (and in fact refused to give her a name when she was born) but she is close to her father and her mysterious older brother Hans Peter, a former sailor haunted by memories "too terrible to relate'. The Pika learns a mysterious written language from Hans Peter, and gains the ability to talk to animals through an adventure of her own. But the real adventure begins the night that an isbjorn, or icebear, comes to her home and promises her family wealth if she will come and live with him for a year and a day.

I love the frozen landscape of this story. The vast snowy distances, the palace made of ice, the north, south, east and west winds who buffet Pika along as she nears the climax of her quest, all combine to create a wilder, earthier, more vigorous sense of enchantment than inhabits most fairy-tale romances. As befits a modern retelling, it is Pika's persistent curiosity and intelligence that allows her to understand the scope and source of the ice-bear's enchantment. Elements of the ancient story of Cupid and Psyche also weave their way through the tale, adding a mythological resonance. Altogether, this is a lovely, satisfying addition to the fairy tale cannon for tween and teen girls.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Katrina and I like our fantasy men Cold, Undead and Sparkly

Do I dazzle you?

Twilight fever has finally hit my home. I used to be such a snob about this series of books, even though they have made such a mark on the teen girl landscape--or maybe because of that, actually. It seemed a bit too pop-culture oriented for my taste. And also--vampires? Really! So not my style. All that changed the night my daughter brought home the DVD and I sat down to watch it with her. I finally got the point. Edward Cullen may be a vampire, but he is SMOKING CRAZY HOT! Kind of like Mr. Darcy would be if he could inhabit an undead, buff 17-year old body. What's really sexy, of course, is the intensity and singlemindedness of his passion for Bella, and his desire to know her deeply. And his constant need to restrain himself lest he devour her. And the whole breaking-all-the-rules aspect of their relationship. The adventure part of the story just adds to the spice. So ever since we've watched Bella and Edward onscreen Katrina and I have both been devouring the series with gusto.

So I'm sorry to have to say that I was somewhat disappointed in Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight Director's Notebook: The Story of How We Made the Movie. It's far too small, for one thing. It has pocket-book dimensions when the visual nature of it--largely collages of photos, storyboards and drawings, with some editorial content--calls for more generous sizing. Many of the pictures are so miniscule, my forty-something eyes struggle with the details. Also, I was hoping for something more substantive in terms of content. Lots of the notebook is concerned with how the movie's "look" was created--the character's wardrobes, the different locations scouted--but not much about things like script development, for example, or how the actors came to interpret their roles as they did. Having said that, there is some interesting material here, including some of Catherine Hardwicke's inspirational material (some stunning paintings created by Hardwicke's sister), some deconstruction of key scenes and their filming. The special effects material was fun, too. And I liked having details that had slipped by me pointed out; for example, that all of the Cullens wear a family crest in the movie, the girls as jewellery, the guys on wristbands. Didn't notice that.

Overall, though, I think the slightness of Hardwicke's Notebook makes it only for real Twilight diehards. Like me and Katrina. And a few million other girls and women out there...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Mother/Daughter Moment: So Totally Emily Ebers by Lisa Yee

My daughter Katrina just wrote a book report on So Totally Emily Ebers. She was pretty cagey about describing the book to me, though, so when I read in her report that she felt she could "completely relate" to Emily's feelings and experiences, of course I had to read it. Well, it turns out that Emily is mostly about a girl whose parents have split up and who blames her mother for the upheaval in her life. Ergo, almost every conversation she has with good old Mom (or "Alice", as Emily calls her) becomes a showdown.

Like this, for example:

"Oh, is she on your volleyball team?" Alice asked.
"How is volleyball going?"
"Do you like your coach?"
"Emily, can we talk?"
See? See how hard it is with her around?

Yep, real impossible Mom you've got there, Emily. You poor, poor thing.