Bellamy and the Beast (2017), by Alicia Michaels

In Bellamy and the Brute, a popular, well-off high school senior is punished for his arrogant and entitled behaviour. Cursed by a disfiguring disease, he retreats into solitude in the upper floor of his family mansion. Enter Bellamy, who is hired as a summer babysitter for his younger siblings. Expressed this way, you can see how Alicia Michaels’s novel is in fact a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, even if the title weren’t so suggestive. But I have to admit that I had to actually think about the underlying teen-angst portion of the tale in order to draw the comparison. The story is so much more interesting than this superficial description leads one to believe, containing as it does murder, ghosts, political corruption, and familial conflict.

FBI Camilla Vasquez is on administrative leave pending a psychological evaluation. Her younger sister, Isabella, had been found dead in a hotel room, but Camilla refuses to believe it was suicide as claimed. It doesn’t surprise us when her brakes mysteriously fail and her car plunges over an embankment. It does surprise us when her spirit looks down on her dead body, takes the hand of her sister, and walks away from the accident. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was already so engaged with Camilla as an intelligent protagonist that I was shocked. I had forgotten that I was still reading the prologue. And Camilla, it turns out, is not the protagonist.

Bellamy McGuire is shunned by her schoolmates, teased because of both her scholarly aptitude and her father’s eccentricities. In the two years since his wife’s death Nate McGuire has been seeing ghosts, and the townsfolk consider him deranged, if not actually dangerous. This impacts the income from the family bookstore, so Bellamy takes a summer job as a babysitter for the Baldwin family to help out. Their generosity is curtailed by only one demand: do not go up to the third floor of the house.

Cue mysterious music…

It should be corny, but it isn’t. When Bellamy first sees the ghosts of Camilla and Isabella, she is (not surprisingly) terrified; the plot thickens when she discovers that Tate Baldwin, the disfigured eldest son of the house, can see them too. This revelation (again not surprisingly) draws the two together in a complicated relationship of antagonism mixed with empathy. As Bellamy and Tate begin to work together to unravel the mysterious connections between Tate’s illness and the ghosts’ demand of justice, their investigations lead them deep into a web of corruption ultimately implicates even members of Tate’s family.

Part of what makes this novel so successful is that readers really don’t know the extent of Tate’s family’s involvement in the plot that the two are uncovering. Even when we begin to see what really is going on, we are uncertain how various characters will respond; this unpredictability is an essential component of an effective mystery. As the story progresses, numerous mystery novel tropes can be easily envisioned, and we are not certain which direction Michaels will be taking us. To her credit, her choices do not cater to our narrative expectations.

Continuing this trend of upsetting our predictions, just when we think the threat is gone—the corruption is revealed and the perpetrators headed towards justice—Bellamy and Tate’s lives are knocked sideways by the almost-forgotten high school bullying that landed Tate in his mess in the first place. While the adult world of political corruption is presented as a more serious threat to life, the conflict between Tate and his ex-friend Lincoln has more tragic results. Again, Michaels does not give clues to where she is going to take us; we really believe that bad things can happen to good people. The two separate narratives parallel each other effectively; the explicit message in both is that we are all ultimately responsible for all of our choices, not only our actions. In spite of the rollercoaster ride, karma ultimately plays a strong role in this very griping mystery novel.

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Howl’s Moving Castle (1996), by Diana Wynne Jones

I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I searched for the cover art for this book, that most of what appeared were images from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime version. I first saw the film when I was attending the annual conference for the Children’s Literature Association in Normal, Illinois, in 2008. Opinions were mixed, but the general consensus was that, while it wasn’t really the same as the novel, it was a good movie. Diana Wynne Jones herself was pleased with it—“It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.”—so I feel justified in liking the movie in a completely different way from the book.

Simplification of novels in adaptation to film is often necessary; Miyazaki does much more than that. Other reviewers have gone through the differences more meticulously, so I’ll just note that, rereading the novel, I was sufficiently pleased to see the little consistencies in character and incidentals—such as the bakery employee moving the boxes aside and poking his head through to call to Lettie, or Sophie cooking the breakfast on Calcifer’s head—that I could forgive the more drastic changes in plot, such as the simplification of the political intrigue and the introduction of the entire war theme.

I recall a quotation from Wynne Jones (that of course I can no longer find) I which she said, admiringly, in response to an objection about the movie: “It’s Hayao Mizazaki: of course there are airships; he has to have airships.” She approves, too, of Miyazaki’s architectural aesthetics: “What I like is the way that Miyazaki has translated [the castle] into a thing of fantasy.” There is a quotation from Ursula K. LeGuin to Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son, but that is another story) about his version of The Tales of Earthsea that in my mind I attribute sometimes to Diana Wynne Jones, as it parallels her overall impression of Howls’ Moving Castle: “It is not my book; it is your movie. It is a good movie.

But on to the actual novel, which contains far more magic than does the movie. The opening lines immerse the reader in a fairy-tale world:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to win your fortunes. (9)

Wynne Jones then goes on to delineate all the ways in which Sophie both does and does not conform to fairy-tale tropes. As the novel progresses, we watch as those tropes are subverted and avoided through the will of the characters. The metaphor is unavoidable: in both Ingary and our world (Howl, it turns out, is really from Wales), it is your choices and strength of character that really control your destiny, not the expectation of the world around you. Sophie’s sisters Lettie and Martha are the first examples: sent by their mother to apprentice to a bakery and a witch respectively, the girls learn enough magic to switch places undetected; for Lettie, the middle child, is the adventurous one and Martha, the youngest and therefore assumed to be destined for great things, only wants to find a husband and have babies. Taking their futures into their own hands, both end up happy.

Granted it is not so easy for Sophie, but as she is our protagonist, that is to be expected. Accosted by Wizard Howl for a moment on the streets, Sophie earns the wrath of the Witch of the Waste, how curses her with premature old-age. But Sophie is a “hale old woman” (55), and moves steadily on with her life, remarking on her new perspective as an old person. The Howl she met in the streets, intimidatingly older, “is only a child in his twenties” (58) to Old Sophie, his “new cleaning lady” (59). Her artificial maturity gives her a confidence to explore who she really is: “It was odd, as a girl Sophie would have shrivelled in embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (66).

As Sophie settles in to her life in the castle, she becomes slowly more aware of her own magical powers—something the reader was made aware of earlier, and Howl recognizes immediately. The politics of magic and government are twisted together, and Sophie seems barely to keep up with the machinations of Howl’s professional life, not to mention the fall-out from his previous romantic entanglements. Her growing belief in herself helps her to stand up to the forces that threaten to overwhelm her—Howl included—and that strength is ultimately key in creating a stable life for both Howl and herself. Unlike in the movie, Sophie has no illusions about Howl’s true nature; there is no scene where they fly off in an airship together. Sophie’s pragmatic acceptance of their affection for each other, despite their faults, is far more satisfying and believable, as befits a fairy tale with an underlying agenda of overthrowing fairy tale tropes.

The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss

wyss-1stI read this book once. Only once. Ever. While it is (or at least was) a classic of European children’s literature, it has certainly not aged well. I cannot bring myself to read it again to review it, so what follows are my recollections from reading it oh-so-many years ago. This might be unfair, but the novel stands out for me as one of the great literary disappointments of my life. For the story of the Swiss Family Robinson—a family marooned on an island who MacGyver together a fabulous treetop home—is the stuff of magical imagination. It speaks to the heart of the child who built elaborate road systems for little cars, and dreamed of a toy train set, just for all those fabulous track junctions… Not so the novel as it was written. Or rather, as it was translated into English by William H.G. Kingston in 1879, which is the edition I read.

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Granted, the idea of racing on the back of an ostrich is appealing to the adventurous child, I think no modern reader—young or old—would be able to get past the Robinson family’s habit of killing an animal in order to determine what it is: “Oh, look, what an amazing, elegant, beautiful creature: let’s kill it.” And while the notion of building an elaborate treehouse from the ground up, so to speak, really does appeal to the engineer in all of us, the glory of bamboo-punk does not outweigh the boredom resulting from the stilted writing and the episodic narrative. But remember, this is a novel of its time and culture. The mechanical engineering that I admired so much is now a solid stereotype about Swiss and German cultures, and the penchant for killing animals just because they could was sadly common amongst European and British explorers—and imperialist conquerors—of the time. Remember the dodo? Or the herds of buffalo shot by men riding past on the railroad? Or the tiger, hunted almost to extinction? It is hard, with modern knowledge of how we have devastated the natural world, to engage completely with The Swiss Family Robinson.

So I no longer even have this novel on my shelf, but I will hold it forever in my mind as an example of the fact that, while literature can tell us so much about a time and place, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

(So popular was this story that there are numerous “in words of one syllable” editions and other such accessible versions.)

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Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.

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