Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Also published as Wilkin’s Tooth
My rating: 5 of 5
Jess and Frank opened Own Back Ltd. when their parents stopped their allowance for the summer. It seemed like a clever idea at the time. But when their first customer is the town bully–the very person they were hoping to initiate revenge upon!–they begin to rethink their idea. Not that it’s so easy to back out at that point; Buster would probably beat them up if they tried. Soon, however, they find themselves way out of their depth, frighteningly so. The two siblings would gladly retire from the revenge business entirely–if only they can make things right first.
As always, Diana Wynne Jones brings a creative, unique tale in Witch’s Business. The entire story is a sort of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie chain of events, with attempts to solve one problem leading right into new problems, again and again. It really is quite the cautionary tale, although most folks contemplating revenge are unlikely to end up in as much trouble as Frank, Jess, and their friends encounter with their local witch. As expected of Jones’ writing, the characters, prose, and plot are all excellent. I really can’t praise her writing style in general enough. I particularly liked, in this story, that 1) the characters’ presuppositions about one another are challenged, and 2) they end up becoming friends with people they would never have considered interacting with before the events unfolded. The growing relationships are quite interesting, and I think the story’s a good challenge to us all in regards to those two items. I also enjoyed the slightly old-fashioned country setting; it’s the sort of place where it seems like anything could happen. Which it did. Witch’s Business is an ideal adventure/fantasy/slice-of-life story for upper elementary to high-school readers, but even better, it’s the sort of tale that just about anyone of any age can enjoy. Highly recommended.
Author: Stephen King
In our world of comforts and conveniences, cars and refrigerators full of food, it’s easy to forget that there’s a big, scary world out there . . . and most of us are little equipped to deal with any of it. Nine-year-old Trisha McFarland gets a very real reminder that the world is terrifying–and full of things we don’t fully understand–when she wanders off the path during a hiking trip, trying to get avoid the argument her mother and brother are clamorously having further up the trail. What began as a quick detour rapidly deteriorates into desperate lostness–which continues for days as Trisha keeps walking, surviving on the snacks she brought for the hike and, later, on whatever she can scrounge up. Sometimes, she feels like giving up, but the example set by her hero Tom Gordon somehow keeps her looking up and pressing on. . . . But how long can she last?
I have heard a lot about Stephen King’s writing, but other than the odd short story, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the first of his writing that I’ve read. It was totally different from what I was expecting–in a very good way. When I hear the name “Stephen King,” I think horror, mostly, not a psychologically intense look at wilderness survival from the point of view of a nine year old. I’ve never read anything that could remotely compare, to be honest. The psychological study is fascinating: Trisha’s own personality (way more mature that I was at nine, but definitely credible), her family situation, her obsession with the Red Sox, and how all these factors played in to her experience being lost in the woods for days on end. Moreover, it was strange but neat how King wove in this creepy “god of the lost” being who may have been real and may have been a figment of Trisha’s fever- and hunger-demented mind–either way, definitely creepy in the extreme. The pacing of the story was slower than I expected from “horror” writer as well; I actually put the book down several times, but kept coming back to it and enjoying it each time. It’s just slow enough that I wasn’t going to stay up late to finish (except for the last couple chapters–I did stay up late for those). I would say that if you have some patience and are looking for something a bit different from anything else and a good psychological study, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon would be a good choice.
Authors: Shaun Tan & John Marsden
Illustrator: Shaun Tan
Somewhere, a girl struggles through her own dark reality, a world depressed and distorted until it’s nearly unrecognizable–will she recognize the gleam of hope that follows her through the day? Somewhere else, a boy finds a . . . well, a thing . . . on the beach. He and the thing have fun playing together until he realizes that it’s hopelessly lost–and he has to figure out what to do with it! Elsewhere again, a group of docile natives find themselves overrun by dominating rabbits, first a few, then an overwhelming flood that is an irrevocable tide.
I admire Shaun Tan’s work greatly–he has the combination of boldness, discernment, and art to be able to pull off things that would look and sound absurd if other people wrote/drew them. Lost & Found is a collection of three of his earlier short stories–“The Red Tree,” “The Lost Thing,” and “The Rabbits” (which was written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan)–all of which were originally published individually. I really like them in this collection though; with the way they’re illustrated, they seem to just flow into each other quite naturally. Thematically, they provide an interesting look into his earlier work in all of its odd, groundbreaking strangeness. I love that he uses such earthshatteringly unfamiliar material to bring into sharp focus things that are in many ways quite mundane. Do brace yourself when reading these stories–I think there’s a fairly strong initial negative reaction to “The Red Tree,” and “The Rabbits” is certainly thought-provoking and maybe a bit disturbing. But I truly think there’s a deeper positive buried under the negative which is honestly worth the time to reach. I would recommend Lost & Found to readers of all ages who are willing to look deeper and change their perspective.
Author: Jenny Allen
Illustrator: Jules Feiffer
Moving into a new apartment, Caroline decides to turn an entire wall into a gigantic chalkboard–the perfect place for her children’s creativity to blossom. Of course, things never go quite as planned, and over time, the giant chalkboard passed through numerous hands and purposes. Still, it brought her happiness.
The Long Chalkboard is a set of three illustrated stories. It’s slated as a graphic novel, but I would say it’s more like a picture book for adults. I love the chunky landscape layout, and the illustrations are warm, expressive, and humorous. (Actually Jules Feiffer’s work is what initially drew me to this book; I’m a longstanding fan from the time I first read The Phantom Tollbooth.) The stories themselves are funny, ironic, and approachable–just what you’d expect from the joint work of a journalist/comedian and a comic writer/illustrator. Although it’s really written more for my parents’ generation, I found The Long Chalkboard to be an enjoyable set of short stories.