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The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson

This Australian classic won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1974, and its author, Patricia Wrightson, is the only Australian author to have been awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lasting contributions to children’s literature. I found a copy of The Nargun and the Stars in the multitude of books that were donated to my library from a local private school’s discard pile, and I read it to see if it would be a good addition to my own library.

It’s a dark and perhaps humanistic, or even pagan, book, but I would say that it’s pagan in the sense of drawing on pre-Christian era mythology, in this case the mythology of the Australian aboriginal peoples. Just as C.S. Lewis drew on both Greek and Norse mythology for his depiction of Narnia and as Tolkien drew from Norse, Saxon, and Celtic myths to create the creatures and world of Middle Earth, Ms. Wrightson used the Australian aboriginal myths and legends to tell a story that speaks into our own time.

The novel begins and ends with the Nargun, a stone and earth creature, full of hunger and anger and “slow, monstrous coldness”. Over centuries, or millennia, the Nargun slowly moved across the Australian landscape and settles into Wongadilla, a place in the mountains of southern Australia.

The actual story takes place in the 1970’s, when the book was written and published. Simon, an orphan, comes to live with his second cousins, brother and sister Charlie and Edie, on a sheep run in Wongadilla. Simon begins to explore the strange place where he has landed, so to speak, and he finds and gets to know odd and mythical creatures in the swamps and forests and caves of Wongadilla. However, it is the Nargun that is a threat to the sheep ranch, to the humans who live there, and even to the Potkoorak of the swamp and the Turongs of the forest. Charlie and Edie and Simon become a family and a team as they work together to understand and to defeat the impersonal but powerful malevolence of the Nargun.

I can see why this book won the acclaim that it did. The writing is quite beautiful and evocative, and I am sure that the atmosphere of this book will become a part of my mental concept of Australia and all things Australian. The Nargun and the Stars won’t be a book for everyone. It might give some children (or adults) nightmares, and some parents could object to the idea that the evil Nargun is only confined by the end of the book and only by means of completely human ingenuity, but not finally defeated or destroyed. However, that ending reminds me of the book of Revelation (which I doubt was the author’s intent) when Satan himself is chained for 1000 years (Revelation 20). Perhaps the Nargun, from Australian aboriginal mythology, is really a demon, or at least that’s way I thought of it as I read.

According to Gunai/Kurnai tribal legends, the Nargun is a fierce half-human half-stone creature that lived in the Den of Nargun, a cave under a rock overhang behind a small waterfall in the Mitchell River National Park, Victoria, Australia. Aboriginal legend describes the Nargun as a beast that was all stone except for its hands, arms and breast. The fierce creature would drag unwary travellers into its den, and any weapon directed against it would be turned back on its owner.

As Shakespeare so aptly said via Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Stories like The Nargun and the Stars serve to remind us in our materialistic and naturalistic philosophical world that we don’t have it all figured out and that there are all sorts of “dragons” and enemies that have yet to be finally defeated and destroyed.

This novel also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and his observation to the effect that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons (Nargun) exist. Children already know that dragons (Nargun) exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons (Nargun) can be killed (or at least chained).”

One more impression: there is a definite affinity between The Nargun and the Stars and N.D. Wilson’s The Boys of Blur. If you liked Wilson’s take-off on Beowulf, I’d recommend Ms. Wrightson’s fantasy/horror story of Australian monsters and heroes.

Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon

The first book I read in 2015 was Jan Karon’s Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good, in which Dooley and Lace finally become engaged to be married. My first book of 2016 was Come Rain or Come Shine, the story of Dooley’s and Lace’s wedding. And to top that bit of serendipity off, we celebrated our own family wedding on January 2, 2016 when my beautiful Dancer Daughter married her loving groom, The Beast (nickname given in all respect as appropriate nomenclature).

If you don’t know who Dooley and Lace are, you should hie yourself immediately to a library or bookstore and pick up the first of Jan Karon’s Mitford books, At Home in Mitford. You have a feast ahead of you. Come back when you’ve finished book #12, and I’ll whet your appetite, if it needs any whetting, for a book about a not-so-fairy-tale, but still very happy, wedding.

Come Rain or Come Shine is the 13th book in the series, and it’s a very satisfying read, especially for a mom who is still recovering from marrying off her first child to be married. (Only seven more to go.) There are lots of secrets and glitches and interruptions and surprises, including a very unexpected guest who crashes the wedding, but they do get married. Dooley and Lace become Mr. and Mrs. Kavanaugh.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“He and Lace and everybody else had done all in their power to keep it simple. They made their own invitations, saved a ton by not having a caterer or a tuxedo rental or an over-the-top bride’s dress to drag around in the chicken manure. What happened to their laid-back country wedding where people could chill out, relax, no problem? Okay, so maybe there was no such thing as a laid-back wedding, no matter how hard you tried.”

Our family motto, decided today:
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12.

“He had prayed in cathedrals and at the bedsides of two or three bishops, but never with more to give thanks for than this day, in this generous place where they were celebrating a marriage, a child, a new home, family ties, a new business, the completion of academic studies, and of course, all those further, though often unseen, blessings bestowed by Almighty God made known through Jesus Christ. . . ‘Almighty God.” He cleared his throat, concerned that he may choke up. Then again, how could he not?”

“Love, cherish, honor, keep. A handful! Honey Herschel hoped these kids had thought it over carefully, but even if they had, they would still not have a clue. You never had a clue about anything till it happened and you learned the truth about yourself.”

“We might say that a good marriage is a contest of generosities. How wonderful that it’s possible to ensure our own happiness by seeking the happiness of another. Is it our job to make the beloved happy? It is not. The other person always has a choice. It is our job to generously outdo, no matter what, and discover that the prize in this contest of generosity is more love.”

I’m gonna love you, like nobody’s loved you
Come rain or come shine
High as a mountain, deep as a river
Come rain or come shine
I guess when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t you ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true if you let me
You’re gonna love me, like nobody’s loved me
Come rain or come shine
We’ll be happy together, unhappy together
Now won’t that be just fine
The days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in or out of the money
But I’m with you always
I’m with you rain or shine.

Venture at Midsummer by Eva-Lis Wuorio

I picked this book out of a bunch of ex-library discards because I had heard of the author somewhere. In fact, I have one of Ms. Wuorio’s books, To Fight in Silence, a fictional World War II story based on interviews with “hundreds of Norwegians who were training in Canada for the war, and dozens of Danish officials who were trying to explain their country’s predicament to the outside world,” on my To-Be-Read list. Someone, somewhere recommended the book to me, and I thought it sounded good.

So, Venture at Midsummer is set after World War II, maybe in the 1960’s; it was published in 1967. Lisa, a Finnish girl, has invited two boarding school friends, Gavin and Jordain, to spend the summer with her family in Finland, near the border with Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was called back then. The young people experience traditional Finnish customs such as a sauna bath and the celebration of Juhannis, Midsummer’s Day, and then they become involved in a dangerous journey across the border into Soviet Russia to help a new friend, Kai, pay a “debt of honor” to his guardian. The four teens kayak into a part of the country that used to be part of Finland, but was given to the Russians after World War II. There they find, of course, much more than they were looking for, and they learn to trust one another and work together as a team.

The setting in the borderlands of eastern Finland is particularly vivid and interesting since I didn’t know much about post-war Finland. I didn’t know that part of Finland was turned over to the Russians after the war or that thousands of Finns, given the option to swear allegiance to the Communist government of Soviet Russia, instead decided to leave their homes and make new lives within the new borders of Finland. In fact, I didn’t know much about Finland at all before reading this book, and now I know a little more.

I’m planning an around the world reading project, and I just realized that this book can be my first one for that project. I found this blog post about author Eva-Lis Wuorio and learned that she was a Finnish Canadian, having emigrated to Canada with her family when she was thirteen years old. I picked up another book by the same author from the same discard pile, Return of the Viking, and I’m looking forward to reading it. According to what I read, it’s a time travel book about some children who meet Norse explorer Leif Erickson.

Christmas in Crawford Falls, Oregon, 1963

Today’s Christmas vignette is from the verse novel, Crazy by Linda Vigen Phillips, about a teenager named Laura who must cope with her mother’s bipolar disorder in an era when mental illness was a taboo subject. I’m not sure how far we’ve moved toward openness and understanding of mental illness and mentally ill people in the interim, but the book portrays the issues and the possible approaches to healing and resolution quite well.

Before everyone gets here, Mother and Daddy
will have her traditional oyster stew
while I stick to peanut butter and jelly.
Daddy will tell us again
how they had lutefisk and lefse on the farm
in Bemidji when he was a boy.

When everybody arrives we’ll gather in the small
living room, glowing with Christmas lights and candles.
I’ll get down on the floor and play with the kids
crowded around the tree.
Each of them will find a present with their name on it,
little junky toys from Woolworth’s I wrapped myself.
The adults will get louder and merrier
with each round of Christmas cheer,
and I will take pictures
with my Brownie Starfish camera.

I wonder
if nervous breakdowns
money worries
alcoholic tendencies
or stormy relations
will bleed through the negatives.

But for this moment
Christmas Eve is aglow
as it should be.

Christmas in Montana, 1960

The Loner by Ester Wier is the story of a boy without a name, without a home, without a family, who travels with the migrant farm workers, picking crops and living hand to mouth, until he comes to rest, by accident, with a lady everyone calls Boss on a Montana sheep ranch. Boss gives the boy the name David, and like his Biblical namesake, David becomes a man while guarding and caring for the sheep.

“It was the first real Christmas the boy had ever known. He sat on the bench and watched as Tex put a tiny fir tree on the table and Angie decorated it with small ornaments. Boss unwrapped the cold, carved turkey and dressing and heated the gravy on the stove. She set the pies to warm and put some coffee on to boil.
After they had eaten, Angie gave David his presents—a warm sweater she had knitted for him, a pair of long woolen socks, and two books. ‘You’ll be reading them soon,’ she promised.
Tex gave him a flashlight of his own, with a box of extra batteries. Boss motioned to Tex and he went back to his horse and returned, carrying a rifle. Boss held it in her hands a while before holding ti out to the boy. ‘It’s a .375 Magnum,’ she said, ‘Ben’s gun. I figured one of these days I’d teach you how to shoot it.’ The boy and Tex exchanged glances. ‘But it’s to be kept up there on that shelf and you’re never to touch it unless I tell you to. Do you understand? I’ll skin you alive if you do.'”

The gun turns out to be significant in David’s maturation, and the two books have a part to play, too. The Loner is a great story, for boys and girls, but especially for young men who are struggling with what it means to grow up and become a good, responsible person. Highly recommended.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

This take-off on the story of Tam Lin and the Fair Folk is an oldie-but-goodie that deserves to be revived. Since fairy tale and folk tale retellings are so popular these days, young adult fans of authors Donna Jo Napoli, Jessica Day George, Robin McKinley, and Shannon Hale should check out this combination of folklore and historical fiction. Ms. Pope’s excellent novel won a Newbery Honor in 1975, an honor it richly deserved.

The story takes place at the end of the reign of Queen Mary I, aka “Bloody Mary.” Kate and her impulsive, lovable sister Alicia are ladies-in-waiting to the Princess Elizabeth, in exile from court at the drafty manor of Hatfield. When Alicia sends a letter of complaint to the Queen, Kate gets the blame, and she is banished to a manor house called The Perilous Gard in Derbyshire to live out her days in disgrace and under close guard. There, Kate meets the master of the castle/manor, Sir Geoffrey Heron and his strange, silent younger brother, Christopher. She also meets a strange lady dressed in green and hears many odd stories about the Elvenwood that surrounds Perilous Gard as well as the nearby Holy Well that draws pilgrims from near and far in search of healing and comfort.

I was especially intrigued by the hints and uses of Christian truth in this fantasy novel. (It does turn into a fantasy novel, as Kate encounters the reality of the Fairies who are behind all the stories she hears about strange, pagan rituals and kidnappings that have characterized Elvenwood.) The central conflict in the novel is between Paganism and the Fair Folk’s thirst for magical power and the Christian ideals of love and service and simple living. There is also a conflict within Kate herself as she sees herself as clumsy, unlovely and unlovable, but learns to see herself in a new light, giving herself in selfless service to another. The book is not overtly Christian or preachy, but in one conversation between Kate and the Lady in Green (queen of the Fair Folk), Kate actually puts into words some of the truths of the gospel in a rather compelling and interesting way:

Lady in Green: “I will not deny that your Lord paid the teind (ransom), nor that it would be good to have had some part in it, for He was a strong man, and born of a race of kings, and His tend must have been a very great one. But that was long ago, long ago in his own time and place. It’s strength is spent now. The power has gone out of it.

Kate: “It has never gone out of it. All power comes from life, as you said yourself, but the life that was in Him came from the God who is above all the gods; and that is a life that knows nothing of places and times. I–I mean, that with us there is time past and time present and time future, and with your gods perhaps there is time forever; but God in Himself has the whole of it, all times at once. It would be true to say that He came into our world and died here, in a time and a place; but it would also be true to say that in His eternity it is always That Place and That Time–here–and at this moment–and the power He had then, He can give to us now, as much as He did to those who saw and touched Him when He was alive on earth.

Granted, the Fairy Lady doesn’t really understand Kate’s gospel presentation, but I thought it was quite well put, and it fits in well with the imagery and the tension between paganism and Christianity that threads through the novel. I loved this story, and I think fairy tale fans would love it, too. A touch of romance, a bit of danger, and a coming of age motif combine to make The Perilous Gard a great read for older teens and adults both. I’d say it’s PG-12 or 13, only because it has some pretty intense descriptions of pagan sacrifice and Halloween evil, nothing nasty or sexual or graphically violent, though.

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Really, really weird. I read the whole book, and then I re-read the ending—twice. But I’m still not sure what happened at the end. I’ll give you the Amazon summary since I don’t think I could summarize this story accurately or write a teaser:

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.
On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.
Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries . . .
What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—–in this life or in another one?
In prose that sings from line to line, Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and of innocence, and of what happens when one is mistaken for the other.

I want to say that this is a book inspired by the popularity of Orange Is the New Black, but I don’t have any idea whether that is true or not. And I’ve never seen the TV show, so I may be totally off on that comparison. A lot of the story does take place in a juvenile detention center for teenage girls.

I found the book confusing and creepy, not necessarily in a good way. I couldn’t tell who was dead or who was alive or when the events in the story were taking place or what the chronology was or even whether good triumphs or evil wins. It seemed as if everybody died—the guilty, the innocent, and everybody in between. But maybe the innocent character that died haunted the guilty party until she died, too? Or maybe the innocent one came alive and took the guilty murderer’s place? I don’t know, but if you like creepy, Edgar Allan Poe-ish, but YA and set in modern times, you could try it.

Not my cuppa, but I did read it to the bitter end.

Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Emilia and Teo have always lived unorthodox lives in a free-spirited and unconventional family. Emilia’s Momma is a pilot and a barnstorming performer, as is Teo’s mom, Delia. The two pilots travel the country and perform together as the Black Dove and the White Raven, since Momma Rhoda Menotti is white while Delia is black. Papa Menotti is an Italian aviator, but Emilia and her mom haven’t seen him since Em was a baby. Theo’s father is Ethiopian, and he died in France when the two children were infants. So, Teo and Em have grown up together as brother and sister.

Delia’s dream is for all of them to move to Ethiopia where Teo can grow up without the prejudice and racism that is prevalent in the U.S. in the 1930’s. When tragedy strikes, derailing the dream, the little family is more determined than ever to fly away to Ethiopia, even though things in Africa aren’t all good. Slavery is still legal, although restricted, in Ethiopia, and the European powers of France, Britain, and Italy are squabbling over who will influence and exercise power in the kingdom ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie.

This historical novel, by the author of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, was riveting. It’s mostly set in a place I know very little about, Ethiopia, and chronicles events that I knew nothing about. Mussolini’s troops used mustard gas in 1936 on Ethiopian soldiers armed with only spears and on civilians? Emperor Haile Selassie himself fought the Italians, shooting at their planes from the ground? Eight black American aviators tried to go to Ethiopia as military support for the Ethiopians during the Italian invasion, but the U.S. would not approve their passports? There’s lots of other history embedded in the story, but aside from that, it’s just a fine tale of adventure and friendship and war and flying and growing up.

Some of the religious and political ideas of the main characters are debatable, to say the least. But that display of odd and varying opinions and beliefs just made me want to meet the characters in the book and talk to them and really understand their beliefs and attitudes, especially in regard to Christianity, better. Momma Rhoda Menotti grew up in a Quaker family, and her attitude toward marriage and religion is liberal and far from orthodox. Teo finds meaning in the liturgy and practices of the Ethiopian Coptic Church as he watches it in Ethiopia, but he realizes that the Ethiopian church is not his church, since he is really an American despite his having an Ethiopian father. Em is not very religious at all, but she has the best lines in the book in regard to religion, telling Teo when he is having a superstitious moment of blaming himself and God for bad things that happen, “God works through us. Through people doing the right thing. Through you. Through Momma giving you her gas mask and covering you up.” She’s acquired sort of a Quaker/Inner Light attitude toward God and religion.

Anyway, it’s a good book with much fodder for discussion. It’s billed as a YA fiction, but I think it’s essentially an adult book, aside from the fact that the two narrators and protagonists are in their late teens. Certainly, adults, both young and old, can enjoy this between-the-wars story of friendship and resilience.

Young Adult Nonfiction: Cybils Suggestions

Do you need a suggestion for a book to nominate for the Cybils in the category of Young Adult Nonfiction (my judging category)? Nominations are open through October 15th, and anyone can nominate a book, as long as the book was published between October 15, 2014 and October 15, 2015. And here’s link to the nomination form.

The following books are a few titles that haven’t been nominated yet that I’ve read or heard good things about:

Cyber Attack by Martin Gitlin and Margaret J. Goldstein. Semicolon review here.

Place Hacking: Venturing Off Limits by Michael J. Rosen. Semicolon review here. NOMINATED

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Student Edition) by Eric Metaxas. Thomas Nelson, May 2015. Bonhoeffer’s own writings and Eric Metaxas’ biography are quite inspiring. Someone should write a teen version of The Cost of Discipleship, or teens should just step it up and read the original. NOMINATED.

Stories of My Life by Katherine Paterson. Dial, October 16, 2014.

Hidden Gold: A True Story of the Holocaust by Ellen Burakowski. Second Story Press, October 1, 2015. NOMINATED

The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown. Viking, September 2015. I read the adult version last year, and it was great. NOMINATED

Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive by Laura Hillenbrand. Delacourte, November 2014. If ever a book cried out for a wide audience, this one does. NOMINATED.

Give Me Wings: How a Choir of Former Slaves Took on the World by Kathy Lowinger. Annick Press, August 2015. NOMINATED.

Springs of Hope: The Story of Johann Sebastian Bach by Joyce McPherson. CreateSpace, May 2015. I have a wonderful biography of John Calvin by this author in my library, and I would very much like to read this biography of Bach.

Make It Messy: My Perfectly Imperfect Life by Marcus Samuelsson and Veronica Chambers. (Teen edition of autobiography Yes Chef) Delacourte, June 2015. NOMINATED.

The Making of a Navy SEAL: My Story of Surviving the Toughest Challenge and Training the Best by Brandon Webb. St. Martin’s Griffin, August 2015.

The Case for Grace (Student Edition) by Lee Strobel. Zondervan, February 2015.

Noah Webster: Man of Many Words by Catherine Reef. Clarion, August 2105. I read her book on the Bronte sisters and really enjoyed it.

The Courage to Compete: Living with Cerebral Palsy and Following My Dreams by Abbey Curran and Elizabeth Kaye. HarperCollins, September 2015. NOMINATED.

Real Justice: Branded a Baby Killer: The Story of Tammy Marquardt by Jasmine D’Costa. Lorimer, September 2015.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition) by William Kamkwambe and Bryan Mealer. Dial, February 2015. I read the adult version and found it to be quite an inspiring story.

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow. Calkins Creek, March 2015. NOMINATED in Elementary and Middle Grade Nonfiction. I think it’s YA.

Legends: The Best Players, Teams and Games in Baseball by Howard Bryant. Philomel, March 2015.

Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland, Suffrage Martyr by Robert P. J., Jr. Cooney. American Graphic Press, March 2015. Semicolon review here.

Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Roaring Brook Press, September 2015. NOMINATED

Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence by Ann Downer. 21st Century Books, August 2105.

Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army by Greg Rauch. BYR, February 2015. NOMINATED

The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp by James M. Deem. HMH Books for Young Readers, August 2015. NOMINATED

Somewhere There Is Still a Sun: A Memoir of the Holocaust by Michael Gruenbaum and Todd Hasak-Lowy. Aladdin, August 2015.

Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery by Janet Willen and Marjorie Gann. Tundra Books, September 2015.

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain. University of Nebraska Press, March 2015.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Linda Lowery, with Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley. Dial, January 2015. NOMINATED. Semicolon review here.

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy by Peggy Caravantes. Chicago Review Press, February 2015.

What have you read in the category of Young Adult nonfiction this year? What book(s) can you recommend? What will you nominate for a Cybil award?

Saturday Review of Books: September 19, 2015

“Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No … eight days a week.” ~Flavia deLuce in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

SatReviewbutton

Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.