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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Thoughts on The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls


If you’re a kid and love to feel squeamish about icky bugs, stinky messes, spooky dangerous houses, and evil magic, this first-time novel by Claire Legrand will be right up your creepy alley. Her main character Victoria, a 12-year-old perfectionist with a serious obsessive streak, has to survive a battle of fearful wits with a deranged witch who, unbeknownst to the clueless townsfolk where she lives, has indulged her sick desire to control people and kidnap their children from right under their noses. Along the way she grows close to her outsider friend Lawrence, nicknamed “Skunk” for a premature lock of gray hair atop his head. Appropriately weird cartoonish illustrations heighten the absurdity of it all.

What pulled me into the story is the main character, Victoria. She’s the kind of girl many of us would have hated: getting a B grade is enough to turn her into a pouting maniac, and she can’t help turning her nose up at everyone in her school. But Legrand does a great job of humorously showing her inner emotions and thought processes. Victoria is mirrored by her antagonist, the fearsome Mrs. Cavendish, in a way that feels believable and enhances the depth of her character.

[semi-spoiler in paragraph ahead]

Mrs. Cavendish is completely over the top, a contemporary take on the witch in Hansel and Gretel. She’s beautiful yet ugly, compelling yet repulsive, and enslaved by her own warped wants. Where she gets her powers isn’t explained, but like many stories for children (admittedly, children mature enough to handle some pretty gruesome revelations) such explanations hardly matter. She is an eternal archetype, and while Victoria prevails here, the book’s ending leaves open Mrs. Cavendish’s return.

The critical questions I have for novels of this ilk are:

1) How well does the author make the transition from “normal” reality to that of the fantasy?

To her credit, Legrand doesn’t immediately plunge us into the world of the weird. She spends plenty of time establishing Victoria’s character, and setting the stage for the bizarre events to follow by more subtle clues: An icy coldness. Nasty classmates. And then finally, on page 35, she bumps into Mr. Alice (rhymes with “Malice”), the Home’s evil gardener, standing by the front gate of the property. When Mr. Alice says he “knows” Victoria, and that Mrs. Cavendish “makes a point of knowing all the children in the area,” you know you’re in for a scary ride.

2) Does the pace slacken in the middle?

I have to confess that, at times, the pace does slow down after she’s been trapped inside the home; especially when she re-experiences a number of ways the house changes shape a là Harry Potter, the story gets a bit repetitive. By the end, however, I was all in.

3) Does the author manage to put an interesting spin on tropes, such that they feel fresh rather than recycled?

Fantasy novels rely on tropes to set an emotional stage, and this one’s no different. This is the one area where Legrand falls a bit short. She especially overplays the “creepy smile” card, which is closely tied to the “everything’s perfect so shut up” card. Mrs. Cavendish herself is a bit of a stock villainess, and Victoria’s sidekick Lawrence is predictably sidekickish. The Home itself, while not a home to orphans, feels very Dickensian.

Nevertheless, Victoria is refreshingly funny and foible-enhanced enough to override all these concerns. Of course, if you’re a caregiver and your kids are prone to nightmares, you might leave this one on the shelf.

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Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers. I loved Anansi Boys and American Gods, and was fascinated by the cleverly sinister world of Coraline. The Graveyard Book is pitched to younger readers, so I expected it to have a likeable protagonist (check) and a spooky, but not terribly frightening environment (check). It won the Newbery Medal, so clearly a number of Important People thought highly of it. And it’s based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, a classic. Sounded like a winner.

For the most part, The Graveyard Book lives up to the hype. It relies on a formula similar to that employed by J.K. Rowling: take a boy orphaned as a baby, when his parents are slain by an evil man with supernatural powers. Then have the boy come to age learning how to use supernatural powers of his own so that he can defeat the evil murderer of his parents. The worlds that Rowling and Gaiman create, however, are vastly different. Rowling’s world of magicians is intricate, sometimes absurd, sometimes terrifying, and involves an entire culture revolving around adolescents. Gaiman’s unnamed graveyard is homespun, charming rather than scary, and obviously too small for Bod to tolerate beyond the confines of the tale. His ghost characters have charisma and feel convincingly real.

[spoiler alert ahead!]

Gaiman’s writing style is smooth and accessible. I slipped into reading this book like slipping into a haunted Jacuzzi. Wondering about the identity of the killer kept the Jacuzzi warm, even when my skin started to wrinkle a bit about halfway through. The problem for me came when other supernatural elements entered the picture: a pseudo-Lovecraftian ancient evil thing that lives in one of the graves, a land of ghouls hiding inside another grave, and a quasi-supernatural order of Jacks to which the killer belongs. The evil thing felt to me like a cliché, the ghoul land was vaguely entertaining but beside the point, and having Jack belong to a Dan Brown-ish cult turned the killer into a bit of a cartoon. All of these elements, in my opinion, detract from the carefully-wrought charm that Gaiman employs to establish Bod, the graveyard, and the ghosts who serve as his parents and friends.

A major source of tension is how Bod handles the world outside the graveyard, and this Gaiman handles better. He meets a girl his own age who isn’t sure whether she’s just imagining him or not, and an apparent benefactor turns deadly. I only wish that Gaiman had made more use of Bod’s innocence in dealing with humans in a context for which he was wildly unprepared.

Still, despite these plot points, you can rest assured that The Graveyard Book is worth taking to bed for a midnight read. Just don’t expect it to keep you up until dawn.

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from a New York City Ballet production

Much to my astonishment, I read an excerpt from a review of my latest novel:

No sooner had I gestured with my finger toward the book when it leapt off the shelf and cozied into my hands. A comfortable chair appeared out of nowhere, my grateful hindquarters settled into an inviting plushness, my eyes greedily took in the opening sentence. After a while the pages turned themselves, in the back of my mind I knew the hours were slipping by, yet still I could not tear myself from this book. Uncontrolled laughter, guilty tears, languorous delight, teeth-chattering anxiety—each in turn swept over me as I plunged unabated into each chapter anew. The bookstore staff took pity, and supplied me with coffee and fudge brownies, which I didn’t touch until I finished the last page, sighed, and finally noticed the store’s proprietor, curled up on the floor beside me, fast asleep.”

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