Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick


I love the title of this book--it resonates, I think, with those ancient epic poems about heroes and battles, victory and defeat, which so many cultures seem to have developed.  It's a good choice for this story.  Sedgwick is a strong and elegant writer who excels at transporting his readers to the past and steeping them in generous amounts of action and chilly atmosphere.

My Swordhand Is Singing is a vampire tale.  It's not written in the current romantic "Bella and Edward" vein;  rather, it is rooted in old Eastern European folklore in which vampires were terrifying, deeply evil, and often quite disgusting to look at.   The folkloric motifs in this story are many--woodcutters, small villages surrounded by the dense wintry gloom of "Mother Forest", gypsies, magical songs and unearthly, unseen characters known as the Shadow Queen and the Winter King.  The charms and defenses against vampires that feature here are equally folkloric--garlic, millet, hawthorne, nets flung into graves.  An archaic ritual, the Wedding of the Dead, plays a pivotal role in the plot.  Sedgwick uses these old beliefs and traditions to create a feeling of historic authenticity, albeit one where the supernatural is dark and dreadful and thrives in the shadows of the natural world. 

Sedgwick's  story concerns the lives of the woodcutter Tomas  and his son Peter, nomads who have recently moved to a hut outside the village of Chust, where villagers view them with xenophobic suspicion.  Tomas is a troubled, violent man who drinks more than he works, and who has been keeping many secrets from his son.  I won't reveal exactly what they are, but they relate to his warrior past.  When a plague of vampires sweeps the village and both his father and the village elders are in denial,  Peter responds to try and protect his sweetheart, drawing his father into danger as well. 

Sedgwick creates some striking images, such as the vampire whose tongue slices through his victim's neck, or the grave with the hole just big enough for Peter to glimpse the corpse's eye, which suddenly opens. However, the chills are nicely balanced by the wholesomeness of Peter's character, which is always humble but grows in courage, determination and maturity.   This is a startling and satisfying book, an exciting story memorably told.

Monday, January 10, 2011

BioGraphic Novel Series: The 14th Dalai Lama by Tetsu Saiwai

"Children are our most precious treasure.  If well-informed and educated, they can preserve Tibetan culture and further develop it for a hopeful future." 

The 14th Dalai Lama is exactly the type of book which inspired me to specialize, as a librarian, in literature for young people, and the type of book which continues to keep me inspired in this field.  Who could not be thrilled with the opportunity to introduce the world's future generations to such a visionary world figure, presented in such an artistic and engaging manner?  

The 14th Dalai Lama is a product of an independent Japanese manga studio called Emotional Content, which is producing a series of high-quality manga biographies about people the founder considers to be the true superheros of our world, people such as Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and Che Guevara.  Emotional Content's founder, Eiji Han Shimizu, believes that "we can learn the value of compassion, history and philosophy through manga", and considers Emotional Content's manga biographies to be one of Japan's contributions to global political and philosophical discourse. 

This book focuses on the Dalai Lama's early years, from his early childhood until his mid-twenties. These were the primary years of his training in the philosophies of Tibetan Buddhism, and were also the years of China's invasion of Tibet, with all of its attendant political ramifications.  We see the beginning of the Dalai Lama's steadfast maintenance of a philosophy of non-violence, even under extreme political duress.  We also see the passionate love for his country and culture that he has also maintained, even in exile.  This extraordinary childhood and young adulthood is shown vividly and dramatically, and is sure to fascinate young readers interested in peace, spirituality,  world politics, or the lives of great men.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Resistance Book 1 by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis

First off, I'm really intrigued by this cover art.  I think it sets us up brilliantly for what's to come. At first glance the cover seems comical, like a political cartoon--a faceless Nazi, all unknowing, about to get bonked on the helmet by some impish child's toy slingshot.  But a full view (the art wraps around the back) shows us Paul Tessier, one of the child protagonists of Resistance, getting ready to release the slingshot, a look of ferocious determination on his face.  His grim expression immediately sombers the mood of the image, recalling us to the truth--Paul may have a slingshot, but his target has a gun and won't hesitate to use it.  He may be the biblical David to the Nazi Goliath, but the odds are heavily weighted against him.  Resistance may cost Paul his life.

Resistance Book 1 is the first of a trilogy of graphic books for children set in France during the Nazi occupation.  It centres around Paul and Marie Tessier, young siblings whose father is being held as a prisoner of war by the German army.  When their Jewish friend Henri's parents are taken by the Nazis while he happens to be away from home, they conspire to hide him in the wine cellars of their family's vineyards.  When Paul discovers that their farmhand Jacques is a member of a resistance group, he begs to join, and the group decides that Paul and Marie's youth might be an asset.  The two children and their older sister end up taking a terrifying journey to Paris to reunite Henri with his rescued parents.

Resistance is a thoughtful book that reads fluidly and is full of telling detail.  From the paranoid secrecy of the time to the squabbles brought on by fear and tension, it's all very believable.  Paul is an artist, and his sketchbook gives us additional insight into his feelings as the story progresses. The author's note at the end reminds us not to make hasty judgments.

" Living in a country that has never been occupied...it is hard to imagine the pressures people faced.  These pressures were both external (physical threats, lack of food, disappearing neighbours) and internal (fear, family loyalty, national pride, belief systems) and they influenced the choices people made.  What seems obvious to us now was probably not at all obvious to anyone then...Each French citizen...had their own story, their own personal concerns to weigh, risks to assess with no idea of how things would turn out, or even what the next day would bring.  Sometimes [their] choices were regrettable, sometimes noble.  All were difficult."

Defiance, the second book in the Resistance trilogy, is coming out July 2011.

Friday, January 7, 2011

You by Charles Benoit

"When I started You,  I knew I wanted a book that had a WTF? ending (that stands for Wild, Thought-provoking Finish).  I wanted readers to be, shall we say, uncomfortable with how it ends.  I wanted them to get involved and figure it all out. That was the goal--to what degree I hit it is up to the reader."
Charles Benoit 

Well, I think Mr. Benoit definitely hit the bulls-eye.

  You is an unusual book in several ways.  It's got massive reluctant-reader appeal, with its gripping opening ("You're surprised at all the blood"), tight pacing and adroit suspense.  It reminds me a lot of Gentlemen, which I reviewed back in 2010. Like Gentlemen, You has a punchy literary style, draws readers into the narration with an urgency I would call relentless, and generates questions almost as fast as you can turn the pages.  In short, it's that oxymoronic, almost impossible thing, a challenging easy read. 

The highlight of this book for me  was the narrative voice.  Benoit has used a second-person narrative style, very unusual in teen fiction because it's so difficult to pull off well.  He pulls it off superbly, and as a result I found that my investment and interest in the main character, with all his faults, was strong.  The second-person voice also  lets Benoit pose his questions quite explicitly and directly to us, the reader, blasting us out of the voyeuristic passivity which readers can sometimes let themselves be lulled into.  You is in no way a passive read.

When did it go wrong?
The break-in?
No, before that.
The party?
That was part of it, but that wasn't when it started.
Of course, yeah, it would be easy to say it was Zack.  But that's not it, is it?"

Here's a link to Charles Benoit talking about You. Enjoy!