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Some Kind of Magic by Adrian Fogelin

Book #4 for the 48-hour Book Challenge
223 pages, 3 hours

The last summer before high school. Things are changing for Cass, Jemmie, Justin, and Ben, and some of them are ready for a change while others just want to keep things the way they have always been.

The four friends, plus Ben’s almost seven year old little brother Cody, discover an old hat that might be magical and an old abandoned building that seems to be just the right place to spend their summer before high school. As relationships between the four friends and others in the neighborhood shift and change, Cody has to figure out what the hat is telling him and whether to listen. And Justin must decide whether to try to think and speak for himself or give up before he ever gets started. Cass has to learn to accept the changes that are inevitable. Ben needs to deal with the restlessness inside him. Jemmie just wants to enjoy the summer and then head for high school, new people, and new adventures.

I liked this book a lot. I’m not sure the pacing is just right for some readers. The book sort of moseys along like a long, hot summer. And the way it’s arranged in chapters from different characters’ viewpoints made it hard at first for me to keep the characters straight. The chapters from the point of view of the teens–Cass, Jemmie, Justin, and Ben—are written in first person, and the chapters told from Cody’s vantage point are all in third person. Because Cody’s so young, only six years old, and couldn’t really “tell” his parts of the story in a mature voice? Anyway, the shifting voices and the slow pace might throw some readers off, but I didn’t have any trouble sticking with it and becoming engrossed.

Ben is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for summer reading, and there’s a bit of a TKAM feeling to this story: a neighborhood story with kids trying to figure out an old mystery from way back, family history, serious stuff going on under the surface of a summer’s recreation. The neighborhood setting is in Tallahassee, Florida, where the author herself resides. And although one of the young people in the story, Jemmie, is black, there’s not really a hint of racial tension in the story, unlike TKAM.

However, I looked up the author, and learned that Some Kind of Magic is the sixth and final book in a series of books about the same neighborhood, called appropriately enough, The Neighborhood Novels. And the first book in the series, Crossing Jordan, is about Cass and Jemmie when they first met, and it definitely deals with racial tension and bridging the gap between white and black residents of this multi-racial neighborhood. I am really interested in reading the first five books in this series so that I can get the backstory of these characters and of other residents of The Neighborhood. Maybe that backstory would have helped me keep the characters straight as I began to read Some Kind of Magic. Still, I recommend this book on its own, and on the basis of having read this one, I also recommend that you look up the other books in the Neighborhood Novels series:

Crossing Jordan
Anna Casey’s Place in the World “Anna Casey must deal with the loss of her family and adjust to living in a foster home. Feeling abandoned and alone, Anna turns to her closest companion, her explorer journal.”
My Brother’s Hero “When his aunt and uncle win a Christmas cruise Ben and his family are off to watch their marina in the Florida Keys. This is Ben’s chance to live aboard a boat, swim and snorkel, fish for the big ones, and have some adventures for a change.”
The Big Nothing “When everyone in his life lets him down, Justin Riggs discovers something inside himself—a hidden talent that helps him survive.”
The Sorta Sisters “Anna and Mica have the same problem. They’re both lonely. Although separated by the entire state of Florida, they keep each other company through the exchange of letters and strange and sometimes mystifying objects.”
Some Kind of Magic

Yep. Gotta add these to the TBR list.

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The Cottage in the Woods by Katherine Coville

Fairy tale meets Gothic romance in this tale of recent graduated she-bear Ursula Brown, governess to young Teddy Vaughn, the only living child of the rich and well-regarded Vaughn family, who live in a manor house in the woods near Bremen Town. The imposing manor is fondly nicknamed The Cottage in the Woods. As Ursula takes up her duties in the Vaughn household she is frightened not only by the high expectations of Mr. Vaughn, but also by the uncanny footsteps she hears in the hallways of the manor, the inexplicable enmity with which she is regarded by Teddy’s old nurse, and the impending danger that seems to hang over nearby Bremen Town. This novel is more than a re-telling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and better than a take-off on Jane Austen’s and Charlotte Bronte’s classics. Hostilities between humans and “the Enchanted” (talking animals) provide the story with a theme and a moral, but the preachiness is decidedly Victorian in tone and so entirely palatable, indeed inspiring.

This 389-page tome was a delight from start to finish. Anyone familiar with Gothic novel tropes will enjoy finding them embedded in the story, and children who are not yet readers and fans of Austen and Bronte will find The Cottage in the Woods a gentle introduction to the genre. The bears worship and pray and sing hymns without apology or embarrassment, and it’s all very Victorian. Yet the fairy tale element adds a whimsicality to the story that will appeal to older children, especially girls. Oh, and there’s a wonderfully crochety and sarcastic Magic Mirror who never manages to answer a single one of Ursula’s questions with any hint of helpfulness or straightforwardness.

I think my girls, ages sixteen and thirteen and fans of both video versions of Pride and Prejudice and also avid viewers of the TV series Once Upon a Time in its first season a couple of years ago, will enjoy this amalgam of folk tale characters, Latin aphorisms, sophisticated vocabulary, and 19th century romance. I certainly did.

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham.
The Luck Uglies #2: Fork-Tongue Charmers by Paul Durham.

The first book in this fantasy series for middle grade readers, published in 2014, won the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. I read it when I was on the panel for Cybils, and I thought I had reviewed it here, but it turns out that I was too busy reading to review The Luck Uglies. So, a quick re-cap:

Riley (Rye) O’Chanter lives on Mud Puddle Lane in Village Drowning with her mother, Abby O’Chanter, her little sister, Lottie, and Nightshade (Shady) Fur Bottom O’Chanter, the cat. Rye is a mischievous urchin, but she has quite a few rules to remember. There are her mother’s house rules. (House Rule Number One is: “Don’t stop, talk or questions ask; beware of men wearing masks.”) Then, there are the rather arbitrary Laws of Earl Morningwig Longchance, such as “it’s illegal to feed pigs on Market Street” and “no woman may wear blue without the express permission of the Honorable Earl Longchance.”

All rules and laws become insignificant in the face of the danger that is coming to Village Drowning: the supposedly extinct Bog Noblins are returning, and there are no more Luck Uglies to fight them off. The Luck Uglies, a secret society of outlaws who used to be Village Drowning’s protectors, are now the Earl’s enemies and hence banished from the village. How will the inhabitants of Village Drowning fight off the Bog Noblins, keep the Laws of Longchance, and figure out whose side the Luck Uglies are on?

So, the first book was an exciting and absorbing introduction to Rye O’Chanter, the Luck Uglies, and Rye’s friends and family. Book 2, Fork Tongue Charmers, introduces us to new characters, new places, and new problems for Rye and the people of Village Drowning. In this book, the Luck Uglies are divided and at odds with one another, while Earl Longchance has hired a new enforcer to bring the villagers, and the Luck Uglies, into line. Rye and her family run away to the island of Pest, her mother’s homeland, but trouble follows them there.

The story is, as I said, absorbing. If I had any issue at all with these first two books in this trilogy-to-be, it was the moral ambiguity of the characters and indeed of the entire story so far. It’s hard to tell whether the Luck Uglies, in particular, are the good guys or the bad guys or a little of both. I predict that this ambiguity will be resolved by the end of the third book in the series, and we will find that, though perhaps mistakes and misunderstandings have occurred, the white hats and the black hats are distinguishable after all. But I can’t promise, since there are a lot of unanswered questions yet to be settled.

So what did I like about this second book? I liked Rye and her penchant for going straight to the heart of a problem and solving it. I liked the family dynamics in Rye’s immediate family and in her extended family. I liked “traveling” to the island of Pest and feeling a taste of Ireland, or perhaps Scotland, in this fictional other-world setting and culture. I liked the Robin Hood echoes and the way I was reminded of Heidi’s grandfather in Swiss Alps in Rye’s island grandfather.

The Luck Uglies is good stuff. Different stuff. Perhaps, depending on how the series wraps ups, even classic stuff.

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Before there were “steampunk” and “alternate history” and multiple volume fantasy series in children’s books, there was Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, made up of twelve middle grade novels “set in an imaginary period of English history which never took place: the reign of King James III, in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, when England was still sadly plagued by wolves.”

Black Hearts in Battersea is the second book in the series. Joan Aiken’s website, created by her daughter Lizza Aiken, is full of treasures, including this bibliography of the over 100 books that Ms. Aiken wrote. The Wolves sequence in order consists of:

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Black Hearts in Battersea
Night Birds on Nantucket
The Stolen Lake
The Cuckoo Tree
Dido and Pa
Is (Is Underground)
Cold Shoulder Road
Limbo Lodge (Dangerous Games)
Midwinter Nightingale
The Witch of Clatteringshaws
The Whispering Mountain
(prequel to the series)

Black Hearts is a great stand-alone story, but it probably makes more sense and carries more depth if you read the books in order. I’ve read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and reading Black Hearts made me want to go back and re-read it and then read all of the others in the series, something that not too many contemporary fantasy series can inspire me to commit to. If you like Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series or perhaps Leon Garfield’s atmospheric and very British historical fiction, the Wolves sequence might be just up your alley.

Many of the characters who dominate the later books in the series are introduced or developed in Black Hearts, including Simon the orphan, his good friend Sophie, and Dido Twite the ragamuffin offspring of Simon’s neglectful and suspicious landlords. The story also features ships and piracy, bombs and plots, a very useful tapestry, and a rose-colored hot air balloon.

Joan Aiken was born on September 4, 1924 in Sussex, England. She grew up in a country village with a mother who “decided that I’d learn more if she taught me herself than if I went away to school” and an American father, Conrad Aiken, who was a Pulitzer-prize winning poet and author himself. Joan’s parents divorced when she was a child, and her mother married another author, Martin Armstrong. Ms. Aiken wrote books for children and adults, and she received the Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction in 1969 and the Mystery Writers’ of America Poe Award in in 1972. She died in 2004. The last two books in the Wolves sequence were published posthumously.

Genuine Sweet by Faith Harkey

I think this book, about “a small-town girl with big-time magic”, a middle grade novel that hardly mentions God and never references prayer as such, has something important to say about prayer and the way we relate to God and his generosity and grace, nevertheless. I’m just not sure I completely understood what it had to say, even though there’s a chapter at the end in which Miss Genuine Sweet tries to wrap it all up in a great big bow and present The Lesson(s) to the reader who’s made it all the way to the end of the story.

Genuine Sweet finds out near the beginning of the story that she has inherited the family shine for wish-fetching. Like her mother (deceased) and her grandmother before her, Genuine is a wish-fetcher. Gram tells Genuine: “Wish fetchers are real. The underlings of angels, my ma used to say, with humbler clothes.”

Of course there are rules. The most important rule is that “wish fetchers can’t grant their own wishes.” And they only grant “good-hearted wishes”, not wishes for revenge or evil gain at the expense of others. Wish fetchers draw down magic from the stars and find a way to grant other people’s wishes.

So Genuine Sweet, twelve year old inhabitant of the very small and isolated town of Sass, Georgia, becomes a wish fetcher. And it’s not long before the whole town is in an uproar over Genuine’s ability to give people what they want and need with her wish biscuits, made out of liquid starlight and special miracle flour. And Genuine wonders what good it does to grant other people’s wishes when her drunken Pa is unemployed, she and her family are about to starve, and the electric is about to be turned off because they can’t pay their bill.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but turn Genuine’s wish-fetching into a metaphor for prayer in my mind. What good does it do to pray for other people when it seems as if I have needs and wants of my own that God isn’t satisfying? How do we know how to pray and what to pray for? If we try to help others will our own desires be granted somehow in the end? What if the one you’re wishing for/praying for doesn’t want to be healed/strengthened/given whatever it you’re asking for on their behalf? Should you wish a good wish or pray a good prayer for someone who doesn’t want it? Jesus actually told us to ask God for our daily bread and for His provision for other needs, but sometimes (most times?) His answer to those sorts of prayers comes in the form of our own hard work and ingenuity. What if our prayers go unanswered?

At least one of the conclusions that Genuine Sweet comes to after all her adventures in wish-fetching is that “there’s nothing in the whole world—except our own selves–that can keep us from our good.” Her conclusion sounds a lot like a secularized version of a Bible verse I know: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:28-29)

I really enjoyed the story and the writing and the thoughts that the book brought to mind. If you read it, I’d be interested to hear what you think. Leave me a comment.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Grahame and Thank You

Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, b. 1859. And isn’t it appropriate that Grahame’s birthday falls at the beginning of March? The Wind in the Willows is definitely a spring sort of story, even though its scenes take the reader through the year from its beginning with spring-cleaning to a summer paddling boats on the river into fall and then winter in the Wild Wood.

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home. First he swept; next he dusted. Then it was up on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash. Finally he had dust in his
throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above him, reaching even into his dark little underground house. Small wonder, then, that he suddenly threw his brush down on the floor, said “Bother!” and “Oh dash it!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.”

A.A. Milne on Grahame’s book:

One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can’t criticize it, because it is criticizing us. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don’t be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don’t know, But it is you who are on trial.”

Willows links:

Inspiraculum: “I’ve just read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame for about the fourth time.”

Ahab’s Quest: The Wind in the Willows is Charming.Willows is a sensuous experience because Grahame so deliberately takes the reader through the small, pleasant things that fill our days. Every meal is described in detail, such that one tastes the picnic along with Mole and Rat.”

Beyond the Wild Wood by Alan Jacobs: “Best of all were those winter evenings when I crawled into bed and grinned a big grin as I picked up our lovely hardcover edition of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, with illustrations by Michael Hague. Before I cracked it open I knew I would like it, but I really never expected to be transported, as, evening by evening, I was. After the first night (I read only one chapter at a stretch), I wanted the experience to last as long as I could possibly drag it out. It was with a sigh compounded of pleasure and regret and satisfaction in Toad’s successful homecoming that I closed the book. I knew I would read The Wind in the Willows many times, but I could never again read it for the first time.”

The Wind in the Willows at 100 by Gary Kamiya (Salon magazine): “It is apples and oranges to compare Grahame and the two other masters of genre-blurring imaginative prose, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Grahame cannot rival Tolkien’s epic grandeur, nor does he possess Lewis’ double ability to create completely different imaginary worlds and weave vivid and intricate stories. But neither of those geniuses handle English the way he does. Tolkien knows only the high style, and Lewis’ solid prose never soars. Grahame is the inheritor of the stately style of Thomas Browne and the lyrical effusions of Wordsworth, with a little Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse thrown in as ballast.”

Happy Birthday, Mr. Grimm

Wilhelm Carl Grimm, b. 1786. While he and his brother Jacob were in law school, they began to collect folk tales. They collected, after many years, over 200 folk tales, including such famous ones as Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, The Bremen Town Musicians, and Rumpelstiltskin. Both Wilhelm and Jacob were librarians. Here’s a Canadian website with stuff for children: games, coloring pages, animated stories, etc.

True story: I once worked in the reference section of a library in West Texas. We often answered reference questions over the phone. One day a caller asked me, “How do you spell Hansel?” “H-A-N-S-E-L,” I replied. The patron thanked me and hung up. About an hour later, I heard one of the other reference librarians spelling into the phone, “G-R-E-T-E-L.”

Here’s a list of some of the most famous of Grimm’s fairy tales, along with a short list of books and other media based on each tale. Do you like to read fairy tale revision novels?

Cinderella, or Aschenputtel
The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson.
Bound by Donna Jo Napoli.
Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.
Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley. Brown Bear Daughter’s review.
Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry.
A picture book series of Cinderella stories from around the world by Shirley Climo, including The Egyptian Cinderella, The Persian Cinderella, The Korean Cinderella, The Irish Cinderlad, etc.

The Fisherman and His Wife
The Fisherman and His Wife by Rachel Isadora. (picture book)
The Fisherman and His Wife by Margot Zemach. (picture book)

The Valiant Little Tailor
Mickey Mouse appeared in a Disney cartoon, Brave Little Tailor, based on this tale.

The Elves and the Shoemaker
The Elves and the Shoemaker by Paul Galdone. (picture book)
The Elves and the Shoemaker by Bernadette Watts. (picture book)
The Elves and the Shoemaker by Jim Lamarche. (picture book)

The Goose Girl
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.
Thorn by Intisar Khanani.
The Goose Girl by Harold MacGrath.

Snow White and the Dwarves
Black as Night by Regina Doman.
Fairest by Gail Carson Levine.
The Fairest Beauty by Melanie Dickerson.
Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen.
1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The 2011 TV series Once Upon A Time features Snow White, Prince Charming, and the Evil Queen as the main characters.

Snow White and Rose Red
The Shadow of the Bear by Regina Doman.

Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman, Beautiful picture book version of the traditional tale.

Rapunzel
Zel by Donna Jo Napoli.
Letters from Rapunzel by Sara Lewis Holmes.
Rapunzel: The One with All the Hair by Wendy Mass.
Rapunzel Let Down by Regina Doman.

Hansel and Gretel
The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin.
The Magic Circle by Donna Jo Napoli.

The Bremen Town Musicians

Rumpelstiltskin
Straw into Gold by Gary D. Schmidt.
The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde.
A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce.
Rumpelstiltskn’s Daughter by Diane Stanley.
The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber.
Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli.
Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff.

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Short Takes on Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta
Mr. Scaletta’s previous books, Mudville and Mamba Point, were both good solid middle grade reads, and The Winter of the Robots continues on in that groove. If your child is into robots or robot wars or science-y adventure tales, then The Winter of the Robots is a just the ticket. I got lost in some of the science of how to build and operate a robot, and I had to believe pretty hard to swallow some of the events that take place in the novel (kids build a self-propelled robot out of an old car?), but I bet most kids could believe it without even stretching.

Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey. I like the idea of secret society of “lybrarians” who are given the task of making the world, past and present, safe for the written word and the free expression of ideas. And I liked the opening two paragraphs a lot:

“Twelve-year-old Dorothea Barnes was thoroughly un-chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she’d never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister.
Don’t even begin to entertain consoling thoughts of long flaxen curls or shiny tresses black as ravens’ wings. Dorrie’s plain brown hair could only be considered marvelous in its ability to twist itself into hopeless tangles. She was neither particularly tall or small, thick or thin, pale or dark. She had parents who loved her, friends enough, and never wanted for a meal. So, why, you may wonder, tell a story about a girl like this at all?”

However, the story sort of meanders along and doesn’t get much better than that opening gambit.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This Harry Potter-ish novel about a boy who is sent to magic school to learn to control his magical abilities is well written and intriguing, but the ending is horrendous. After another episode in which a different character lies about being abused by a teacher, our hero ends up concealing a secret so horrible that he cannot tell anyone about it, believing that his very soul is evil, and that no one will help him or believe him or love him if he tells. That’s creepy and disturbing.

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell. This Norwegian fantasy is written by a Norwegian author, but I don’t see any translator credit. So I suppose it was written in English. Nevertheless, there’s a culture gap as far as I’m concerned. Lindelin Rosenquist (lovely name) is the Twistrose (rosa torquata), sent to the land of Sylver to save the Petlings and Wilders there from imminent danger. However, she and her own special petling, Rufocanus, a redback vole, spend a lot of time wandering about and getting into fixes, then taking turns rescuing one another. They talk about having a plan, but the plan is rather muddled, and various characters show up and disappear randomly. I think I missed something in the non-translation, but maybe other readers will be able to think more Scandinavian than I do.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones. Aileen and her Aunt Beck, the most powerful Wise Woman on the island of Skarr, are sent on a journey to rescue a prince. The characters in this novel do nothing but argue and undermine one another while they travel on a mission that none of them really believes in. The arguing isn’t even witty or funny. It’s a posthumous novel, completed by Ursula Jones (Diana Wynne Jones’ sister). I think the idea had potential, but someone dropped the ball.

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These books were also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Huh? Moments in Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

These are actual quotations from finished copies of books (not ARC’s) that I’ve read recently. In some cases the book was good, but the editors need to step it up:

Officer, who is arresting a man who has been carving on another family’s grave monument: “Looks like defamation of personal property to me.”
Desecration? Defacement? Vandalizing? Can you defame a rock?

**************

“He leaned over and for one endless moment, [she] thought he might kiss her. . . She leaned toward him and pressed her forehead against his, felt his warmth soak into her skin, let wisps of his cool hair brush against her cheeks. . . . They pulled apart slowly, as if they were fighting the tide.”
I am trying to imagine this scene. Forehead to forehead. Slow motion parting. I can’t.

**************

“The commotion even attracted the local seagulls. About fifty flocked to the site. Their loud high-pitched squawking and a barrage of bird poop bombs added to the growing chaos. . . . Onlookers at the aquarium’s shark pool were now jumping up and down, wiping the stinky gray-green seagull poop from their heads, and covering their eyes.”
One of these actions is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong. I’m not about to be covering my eyes with the same hands that have been wiping off poop, while also jumping up and down?

**************

One character tells another, “You’re knees are backward.”
Really? You are Prince Knees-Are-Backward.

No, I’m not going to tell you what the books were. Each one is from a different middle grade speculative fiction book published in the past year.

Two YA


Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I read these two recently acclaimed young adult speculative fiction novels over the Christmas break, and I liked one very much, despite its faults, while I hated the other, despite the interesting premise and better-than-adequate writing.

First, I read Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Cringe. The protagonist, Glory, spends almost the entire book grousing about how self-centered her best (and only) friend, Ellie, is. However, it’s Glory herself who comes across as self-absorbed and practically narcissistic. Everything that everyone else in the book does or says is all about Glory and how it affects Glory and what Glory wants. Yes, she’s the narrator of the story, but still I never felt for a moment that Glory had any insight into how someone else in the book might be feeling or what someone else might be thinking. Nor did I feel that she wanted to have that kind of insight. Even the one unselfish thing that Glory does toward the end of the book is sort of mixed-up and full of thoughts about how Glory feels about her own unselfish act. The fantasy part of the book, in which Glory and her friend Ellie see flashes of what has happened and what will happen to people they meet, adds to the story as it reveals the possibilities that lie in the future, but the initial impetus for their ability to see the past and the future is rather ridiculous. They drink a shriveled up, powdered bat. Really. And then they can see brief glimpses of other people’s timelines. I thought through about half of the book that someone was going to realize that both Glory and Ellie were simply bat-crazy and horribly, mind-numbingly egocentric.

Belzhar was a much more satisfying read, even though the language and dialog in the book were not as well-written as Glory O’Brien. The difference was that I somehow cared about what happened to Jam (short for Jamaica), the narrator of Belzhar, whereas I just wanted Glory to hurry up and grow up and get over her navel-gazing. Belzhar tells the story of Jam and her classmates who are in a Special Topics for English class at a special school for teens who are having trouble coping with life and regular school. The teens can’t be mentally ill or drug-addicted, but they are all borderline, dealing with issues in their recent past that have made them unable to cope for one reason or another. Jam is at The Wooden Barn because she recently lost her boyfriend, Reeve, and the grief is killing her. When she realizes that the journal that she writes in for English class can transport her to a magical place, Belzhar, where she can reunite with Reeve, Jam is both thrilled and scared. Is she going crazy? Are her interludes with Reeve real, and how can she make sure they will last forever?

Even though I saw the plot twist coming, and even though the pacing of the novel was uneven, and even though the dialog was sometimes clunky, and even though I wanted to excise the minor homosexual subplot, I enjoyed reading Belzhar. I was intrigued to find out what had happened to Jam and her friends to bring them to their school/retreat, The Wooden Barn, and I was even more curious to see how they would succeed or fail in coping with the issues that they brought with them. Unlike Glory, Jam actually retains, or regains, the ability to care about other people, even while coping with her own difficulties. Jam, like all of us, is a flawed character, and we come to see just how broken she is by the end of the book, but I could identify with her in a way that I couldn’t with Glory O’Brien.

So, read Glory O’Brien ‘s History of the Future for flashy writing and empty, self-centered characters.
Or read Belzhar for engaging stories and characters described in slightly more pedestrian writing style and execution.

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