Maniac Magee: A Review

They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring.

They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.

They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else.

They say.

Maniac Magee by Jerry SpinelliBut before anyone said any of those things, Jeffrey Magee was just a normal boy. At least he was until he was orphaned and ran away to Two Mills a year after. No one knows why it took him a year to get to Two Mills. No one knows where the truth ends and the myth begins.

This is what we do know: Finsterwald is gone now but kids will never sit on those front steps. Two Mills still has a Little League and a band shell. Cobble’s Corner is still at the corner of Hector and Birch and the man behind the counter still has the clump of string. And grade school girls still sing about Jeffrey Magee, though they might not know him by that name.

If you want to know about Maniac, just run your hand under your movie seat and be very, very careful not to let the facts get mixed up with the truth in Maniac Magee (1990) by Jerry Spinelli.

Find it on Bookshop.

Maniac Magee was the 1991 Newbery winner and recently selected as number 17 in Betsy Bird’s 100 Greatest Children’s books poll over at her blog A Fuse #8 Production. It is also a surprisingly rich story given its 184 pages (paperback edition).

Part legend, part tall tale, Spinelli spins a yarn here about an ordinary boy who, through his own ingenuity and maybe a bit of luck, does extraordinary things–things that have the power to change the lives of those around him. But at its core, Maniac Magee is a story about a boy looking for a place to call home and a family of his own.

Spinelli skillfully captures the wonder of youth in his writing here. Maniac Magee is a wonderful, fun story that is more than ready for a book discussion.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, You Don’t Know Me by David Klass, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Castle in the Air: a review

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne JonesCastle in the Air is Diana Wynne Jones’ sequel to her amazingly awesome novel Howl’s Moving Castle.

Find it on Bookshop.

It was originally published in 1990 (four years after Howl’s Moving Castle). At first glance, this novel doesn’t sound like a sequel–it sounds more like a companion book at best–but I promise it does explain more about Howl and Sophie, just not right away and not, perhaps, in the most obvious way.

That said, this story is set in the Sultanates of Rashpuht a land far to the south of Ingary (where Howl and Sophie make their home). Instead of a land akin to King Arthur and Merlin, Rashpuht is much more likely to harbor Aladdin and other desert-dwellers. This change in setting, along with a new protagonist, make for the most dramatic differences between Castle in the Air and its predecessor.

Abdullah works as a carpet merchant in the city of Zanzib. Abdullah’s stall may not be as prosperous as his father’s first wife’s relatives would like, but Abdullah can’t stand most of them so he doesn’t worry too much. What really bothers Abdullah is the fact that he’s selling carpets at all. Abdullah is convinced there is more to life and spends a good deal of his time daydreaming about what his life could be like if, say, he were a prince who had escaped bandits and disguised himself as a carpet merchant before he found his true love.

All in all, the young man doesn’t give his daydreams much thought until he is sold a mysterious carpet. With the carpet, Abdullah finds that all of his dreams seem to be coming true with alarming accuracy. Whisked to a magical garden, Abdullah meets and falls in love with the beautiful and intelligent Flower-in-the-Night only to have her abducted by an evil djinn. So begins Abdullah’s adventure as he and his carpet set off to rescue his true love.

This being a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the plot is filled with charming twists and enjoyable characters throughout. The other great thing about this novel is how much Jones fleshes out the world she introduced in Howl’s Moving Castle. As the novel progresses, readers learn more about the relations between Ingary, Rashpuht, and Strangia (a land that becomes important later, trust me). At the same time, Jones also creates a completely new set of customs and even a new diction for her Rashpuhtian characters which gives the novel an impressive depth.

I don’t know if this was the intended effect but, even though both novels are written in English, this change in diction also creates the effect that the characters here speak a different language and that, on some level, their customs would be very foreign to those found in Ingary. One of Jones’ best inventions is that buyers and sellers in Zanzib always speak to each other “in the most formal and flowery way.” This habit creates a lot of conversations that function on a variety of levels much in the same way body language can add to an exchange. For example:

“It is possible that my low and squalid establishment might provide that which you seek, O pearl of wanderers,” he said, and cast his eye critically over the stranger’s dirty desert robe, the corroded stud in the side of the man’s nose, and his tattered headcloth as he said it.

“It is worse than squalid, might seller of floor coverings,” the stranger agreed.

Exchanges like this appear throughout the novel and make it really enjoyable to read. At the same time this type of double talk suggests that Abdullah is a shrewder narrator than Sophie might have been at the start of the novel. Abdullah doesn’t always know exactly what’s going on during the novel, but he always tries to make sure he comes out on top (or at least not on a forty foot pole).

On its own, Castle in the Air is a lot of fun as far as fantasies go. Read in combination with Howl’s Moving Castle and House of Many Ways (Jones’ latest novel featuring Howl and Sophie due out in June 2008 ) this book is excellent.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Arabian Nights, Exiled: Memoirs of a Camel by Kathleen Karr, Hero by Alethea Kontis, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

 

A Well-Timed Enchantment: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande VeldeI don’t particularly like cats in real life, but I’ve noticed recently that they are generally a lot more appealing in fiction. A Well-Timed Enchantment (1990) by Vivian Vande Velde has a cat that’s cool like that.

Find it on Bookshop.

The story starts when Deanna, a fifteen-year-old spending the summer with her mom in France, drops her Mickey Mouse watch down a well. Turns out the well isn’t your average well: it’s magic. To make matters worse, Deanna didn’t drop her watch into the well, she dropped it into medieval France. Now she has to get the watch back before things get really out of hand. Deanna gets some help in the form of Oliver, the black cat she befriended back in modern France. Except now Oliver is a human.

I first read this book when I was sixteen. I loved it so much I read it twice back to back. A Well-Timed Enchantment is one of those books that never get old. You can read it again and again and the story is still just as good as the first time.

Vande Velde’s narrative style here is similar to her other “fairy tale” books (like The Rumpelstiltskin Problem or Heir Apparent) with a blend of traditional story telling and her inimitably modern sensibility. The novel is written with a third person narration that follows Deanna’s perspective.

This novel combines a lot of different elements to great effect. One of the best characters (in any of) Vande Velde’s work is Oliver. Turns out cats don’t see things the same way humans do. I don’t know how convincingly anyone can write in the voice of a cat-turned-human but Vande Velde seems to do a good job of it.

The story is quick and fairly simple. There are a lot of things that older readers can enjoy and comment on, but the story is straight-forward enough that younger readers can also keep up. I might even go as far as to say it’s a great feminist-oriented book for children (some might call it “anti-princess”) because Deanna plays a significant role in fixing things (getting back the watch) even though Oliver does help quite a bit.

My only issue with A Well-Timed Enchantment is the ending. Some readers will tell you they like a good, open-ended finish. It’s more realistic, it encourages readers to use their imagination, etc. There is a time and place for open-endedness. This book does not happen to be the best place for it. Vande Velde acknowledges this in her dedication (it’s dedicated to a girl even though she hated the ending). Over the years the ending has rankled less because, having given the matter more thought, I’ve been forced to conclude that there might not be a better way to end things. But it still left me frustrated after my first reading.

Despite the somewhat irritating ending, this book is amazing. The characters are endearing, the story is fun, Oliver is awesome. Vande Velde is as creative and fun here as ever.

Possible Pairings: Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco, Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin