Ghost Wall

51cmihoku8lA man insists you build a wall; why would you do what he demands? Sarah Moss addresses abusive power, fear, and complacency in a suspenseful melodramatic tale about a wall.

In this short (130 pages) riveting tale, 17-year-old Silvie and her parents spend a few summer weeks in the North British woods with a group of college students and their archeology professor, trying to reenact the lives of ancient Britons from the Iron Age. They eat only what they can gather, and wear soft moccasins and scratchy tunics.

When Silvie’s abusive father, a bus driver by trade, beats her for bathing in the stream, the tale escalates into a horror story climaxing with the reenactment of the ghost wall of the title, referring to the ancient Briton practice of placing ancestors’ skulls overlooking a camp. One of the college students, Molly, not only befriends Silvie but saves her from what quickly becomes a nightmare Silvie seems unable to prevent herself.

With references to the famous bog people throughout the story, a prologue describing the sacrificial rite, and Silvie’s memory of having once fallen into the bog –

“the bog seals around you…{filling} the inner skins of every orifice, seeping and trickling through the curls of your ears, rising like a tide in your lungs, creeping cold into your vagina, it will embalm you from the inside out,”

the reader can anticipate terror in the seemingly innocuous field trip. But Moss has a clear message too, and thankfully Sylvie’s father gets what he deserves.

Only You Can Save Mankind

9780060541873_p0_v1_s260x420What if a character in the computer game you were playing suddenly became real? In The first of Terry Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Johnny faces down aliens in “Only You Can Save Mankind.” Targeted for a middle school audience, Pratchett’s science fiction thriller has some elements appealing to adults, with Pratchett’s clever references to human foibles, including unhealthy food, politics, and parenting, but overall, Johnny’s struggles with making friends, being a nerd, and generally trying to understand the adult world, fit the formula for a coming of age adventure.

I found this slim paperback, surrounded by shelves of Terry Pratchett books in the upstairs maze in The Last Bookstore. The title attracted me and had me wondering – can mankind be saved? Pratchett offers a few funny alternatives in his war against the aliens, and the action gets exciting as the story heads to its climax.

A fun quick read and Pratchett is now on my list of children’s authors to follow.  My favorite quote from the book:

You might never win, but at least you could try.  If not you, who else?

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

9780812982855_p0_v3_s260x420When the local book club decided to start the year with a discussion of Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, I dutifully got on the library wait list. Holding steady at number 44 on the list for weeks, I found the book’s summary and thought the sad story of a favorite artist uncle dying of AIDS in New York City of the 1980s might be one I’d skip.

Then I read a short review by Liberty Hardy:

” I thought (this book) would be so sad that I would end up needing to take breaks. This wasn’t so. It was sad, but it was also beautiful …Brunt did a good job of not holding the reader’s head under water, which isn’t always the case with authors who are trying to pull your heartstrings. I had a nine hour travel day that flew by because of this book.”

Any book that can hold a reader’s attention on a long plane ride is worth finding. So I’ve downloaded the book to my Kindle, and am engrossed in the family drama and social stigma that young June, the narrator, seems to be navigating well. I am looking forward to reading the whole story.

Have you read the book?

Ok for Now

How do some kids survive?  In Gary Schmidt’s young adult book OK for Now, eighth grader Doug Swietack successfully uses his grit, curiosity, and artistic talent to battle the abuse, poverty, and intolerance that would bring him down.  In a poignant story that mixes Audobon’s famous reference book, Birds of America, with Joe Pepitone’s Yankees glory, Schmidt will have you cheering as well as crying as Doug grows into himself.

When Doug’s father loses his job, the family moves to Marysville, New York, but Doug has more problems than being the new kid in town.  His father is abusive; he has a reading disability; and his brother is a bully. Schmidt follows Doug through his developing interest in art when he discovers the Audobon book under glass in the local library.   Illustrations of Audobon’s famous birds connect the action, as the librarian instructs Doug in the finer points of sketching.  Schmidt includes copies of the Audobon birds at the beginning of the chapters, and it’s tempting to flip back to study their lines.  When the birds soar, so does Doug’s life; when they drop into the water, Doug’s misadventures seem to follow.  Part of the story includes a quest for restoring the famous book that has had pages sold to fund the town’s needs – snowplows and salaries.

Through Doug’s new Saturday job at the local deli, he meets his future girlfriend and a series of town eccentrics.  The school principal and PE teacher/coach become instant adversaries, but the English teacher who tutors him into literacy and the science teacher who chronicles the Apollo landing on the moon also add to the mix. A constant flow of caring adults helps Doug slowly develops into the kid you’d like to know and want to succeed.

Doug breaks out of the text at key moments to talk to the reader  – “You know what it feels like,” he says – and you do – whether you’re an adult or young adult reader.  The story ends with the promise that Doug will be more than OK – and so will the reader for knowing his story.

A Stitch in Time

As an only child, Maria can have intelligent conversations with her parents and other adults, and can quietly and respectfully spend time by herself, but a summer vacation at a Victorian house by the sea when she is ten years old becomes the key to opening up not only new adventures but also her own possibilities.  In A Stitch in Time, British author Penelope Lively captures that magical time between childhood and young adulthood that offers child-like adventures and the promise of becoming grown up.

With careful attention to describing the old house and its surroundings, Lively creates the sense of being in the lovely British countryside.  Maria narrates through her thoughts and anxieties as she quietly converses with the cat.  When she meets her first real friend, Martin, she manages to emerge from her solitude to engage with his rowdy family of brothers and sisters, discovering her interest in fossils and maps, and changing from a frightened lonely girl to one who learns how to have fun.

Although the story proceeds slowly, episodes of strange sounds and visions that only Maria can experience – the sound of a barking dog, the creaking of an old swing – tease you into wondering if this is a ghost story.  Lively maintains the suspense with Harriet, a ten-year old girl who lived in the house over one hundred years before.  After finding the sampler with the swing and dog included in the art, that was finished by Harriet’s sister, Maria begins to imagine Harriet’s life and death at a young age.  Harriet seems to come to life within Maria when she swings, and, at times, Maria thinks she can see the other girl.   The ending includes a tense episode on a seaside cliff that solves the mystery but leaves the door open to interpretation.

A Stitch in Time is one of Penelope Lively’s older books targeted for a younger audience.  The pace is slow but calming.   The story is available as an audiobook, and it seems the perfect candidate for listening – for children or adults who need to remember the child within.

“…in a funny way we {adult and child} both go on being here forever, aged ten or eleven one summer, because we once were…”

Lively is a prolific writer with an elegant Old World style; winner of the Man Booker prize in 1987 for Moon Tiger, she has a new book I am looking forward to reading – this one for adults.