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Posts Tagged ‘Harry Potter’

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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No doubt you have read book reviews for adult fiction that excoriate the writing for employing trite characters, hackneyed plots, and old, hoary thematic tropes. No doubt you have read some of these books as well, and found them to be nauseatingly boring reads. What fun is a story without plot twists and characters who explode conventions and challenge one’s notion of what makes a good tale?

No doubt one has gained considerable satisfaction in pointing out what these tropes are and why they make for mediocre fiction. Editors and agents in particular attack with relish submissions that rely on vapid, timeworn themes and techniques.

Even editors and agents dealing with children’s books.

And yet…what are tropes to children? Put simply, they don’t exist, particularly for younger children who are just beginning to explore the fictionverse. They don’t care if a villain is done up in paint-by-number colors, or a plot device is predictable as apple pie. They don’t care if adult readers know just what the hero is going to do because they’ve read it so many times before.

And yet…kidult fiction must also appeal to adults, who evaluate, purchase and often read said fiction to children. A writer of such fiction must perform a balancing act for two widely differing audiences.

Which brings me to my latest Middle Grade Novel read, Jinx by Sage Blackwood (aka Karen Schwabach). This fairly long (360 pp.) fantasy tale is about a preteen boy named Jinx. Who is—surprise, surprise—an orphan.

Really. Who would have guessed that a children’s book would feature a main character who’s an orphan? Well, just about anyone would have guessed. I haven’t done an official survey, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one out of three fantasy tales for kids nowadays features at least one orphan, particularly as the main character. As an adult, I find this distressing. It’s a cheap and easy way to elicit sympathy for the protagonist, conveniently eliminates parents from the story, and gives the protagonist a convenient cause or sense of longing.

Know what? Kids don’t give squat about my feelings here. And I can’t blame writers for thrusting the mantle on orphans when the most popular kidlit hero of modern times, a Mr. Harry Potter, was an orphan par excellence.

Such orphans have to overcome a terrible temporary home life (the Dursleys) and find a substitute parental figure (Dumbledore). Jinx’s version of the Muggle family members are superstitious, mentally challenged villagers who live in a clearing in a scary, magical forest. Like Harry, Jinx’s substitute dad is a wizard. Only in this case, the wizard is only marginally better than Jinx’s abusive stepdad. But you know, the wizard knows stuff. Interesting stuff. And Jinx is so ready to find out what it is.

Jinx has no Hogwarts to provide endless snarky relationship tangles, but he does meet a couple of other magical wannabe kids. For awhile they thrash out their differences, and it’s kind of fun, but some of the conversations go on and on and on—Blackwood could have trimmed 50 pages of conversation and avoided some of the dreaded mid-novel sag. Things pick up when they meet a truly evil sorcerer, who nonetheless has his charms. I won’t say what happens—spoilers and all that—but the threesome deal with some loathsome evil here that’s also thankfully not too graphicly depicted.

Kudos to Blackwood for avoiding the trap of creating a cartoon evil character, at least. Her three kids may be in a fantasy world, but they are just like kids in our neck of the Universe. I guess that’s good enough for me to ignore the fact that she mined the Orphan Trope like a California prospector in 1849.

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The Hunger Games(spoiler alert!)

Today I finished reading this It novel, so these are somewhat unfiltered reactions. I have yet to read any of the sequels (though I’m pretty sure from the title that “Catching Fire” is about Katniss as a fugitive), nor I have seen the film yet.

1) The ending is spot on. There is no happy ending here—how could a romance forged during a bloodsport have any substance? Things are unresolved after Katniss and Peeta have returned home, as well they should be. It also sets up a sequel nicely, BTW.

2) Katniss is a media star at the end, and like many child stars she’s confused and uncertain about her identity. So even though she accomplished her immediate goal—survival—she’s yet to define the rest of her life.

3) The people who stage these games must have psyches as warped as the muttimal wolves they turn loose on the three remaining tributes at the end. They’re kind of a blend of Nero’s Rome and contemporary, cynical TV executives. We never meet them, of course. My take on the contrived romance angle is that they only encouraged it because of popular opinion—and Katniss and Peeta are wildly popular.

4) Part 2, in which all the horrible stuff happens, is my least favorite part of the book. It’s unrelentingly grim and disgusting, and not my idea of either entertainment or elucidation. Yes, there were some moving parts—Rue’s death and Katniss’s reaction to it come to mind. But did we really have to have those wasps? Most of it I read as quickly I could, just to get through it. And then at the end, turning the dead tributes into killing werewolves? Sorry, that was just overboard for me.

5) The story is a comment on the role of violence in entertainment, which in America is considerable. Ironically, the story uses violence as part of its entertainment, while simultaneously condemning it. Can you have it both ways?

6) Conversely, my favorite parts were when Katniss has to deal with the slick horror of the Games officials before she’s tossed into the arena. This is the only place where I actually laughed as I read.

7) Is this an allegory for how we treat our young people? How we cynically take them from their families and send them off to wounds, madness or death in foreign wars? How we create icons of girls that other girls cannot possibly hope to approach? How would a high-society debutante feel reading this?

8) Until I actually finished reading, I had conflicting feelings about whether I actually liked it. At times it seemed like the TV show Survivor on steroids. What elevates it at the end is Katniss’s character. She’s not only clever at surviving, she recognizes the psychic peril she’s in, and she’s always trying to sort out what her attitude is. Her “romance” with Peeta is beautifully nuanced, really different from what one typically finds in YA fiction.

9) Other stories came to mind while reading: Harry Potter, in particular how the Games projecting the images of the dead in the sky echoed the Dark Mark. The Truman Show, a movie starring Jim Carrey, in which a man’s entire life is followed by hidden cameras. And 1984, the granddaddy of future dystopias.

10) Finally, I have to throw out a few comments on Suzanne Collins’ world she’s created here. Some readers have expressed disbelief that the Capitol could possibly be so cruel, but one only has to look at history to see that it’s possible. The real question is, what do these games accomplish for them? Did they have a good reason to fear a revolt by any of the outlying districts? If so, why not just use, say, occasional bombing to keep the citizens in line, rather than this elaborate “entertainment”? I assume we’ll find out more about Panem and the evil at its heart in the sequels. In the meantime, I’m willing to cut Collins some slack. I just hope the sequels don’t have nests full of deadly psychosis-inducing wasps.

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