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March 2002
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Bruce Coville, The Monsters of Morley Manor, Harcourt, 224 pp, 16.00
Vivian Vande Velde, Being Dead, Harcourt, 203 pp, 17.00
Diane Duane, The Wizard's Dilemma, Harcourt, 403 pp, 17.00
Terry Pratchett, The Last Hero, HarperCollins, 132 pp [in the Text Only version], 35.00

I am incapable of keeping track of Magazine time, which is the time it takes to get from the here and now of writing a column to the here and now of reading it. So at the moment, I am in October, and it's the October after September, the month in which the joint birthday of my father and his oldest son are forever going to be overshadowed by the events of September 11th. I have watched more television in the past month than in the previous three years combined; I read the papers as if the edited words of distant reporters convey some visceral truth. I read about the firefighters who ran up the stairs because it was their job. I read newsgroups, and listened to people that I have always thought of as level-headed use phrases like "Nuke Mecca". I spoke to people who live in the shadow of the altered skyline, and I heard the passing of something I don't want to name in the numb business of their words.

The air is cool; I am writing outside to the sound of passing cars and raccoons trying to open the trash cans. And, of course, I am thinking about death. Or grief. I am trying to digest the phrase "collateral damage" without being cut by its edges, and frankly, it's impossible. I'm thinking of the Marshall plan. Of speaking with my parents, in the heated way that only teenagers can, about Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I can still see my father's face, moments before he ended the conversation by leaving the room, as he said, "But it ended the war." He was afraid, I think, to stand out, to object, to speak for the people who had no choice—had never had any choice—about the course of the war that was to kill them.

And I am thinking about racial profiling. About Eleanor Roosevelt, who made herself such a target of anger by posing for pictures with Japanese Americans right after Pearl Harbor, in an attempt to make clear what democracy—her democracy—stood for. In the end, it didn't matter. Both of my parents lived in internment camps, and my father was orphaned in them. There are shadows here. I don't believe that history can't repeat itself.

The first several books I picked up for the column were not bad books. But I read the surface of words without penetrating them; the act of reading, which has been such a necessary part of my life, was beyond me for weeks.

So perhaps it's not surprising that I turned to the handful of novels at hand that were written for young adults. They remind me of what reading was when I had a much clearer idea of what the world was all about—or of what it should have been all about; they invite me to re-enter that world and that place, to set aside the more demanding rigor of the nuance of an older life, to exchange it for the magic of a moment that has nothing to do with the mundane responsibilities of balancing books, paying mortgages, worrying about wars that are built because of the subtleties of the mundane.

* * *

Bruce Coville's The Monsters of Morley Manor is billed as a "Madcap Adventure," and in this case, the book lives up to that billing. It's a middle-reader, aimed at readers ages eight to twelve. The frenetic everything-but-the-kitchen-sink story of Morley Manor—that abandoned old house at the end of the street that everyone has always been afraid of—unfolds through the eyes of Anthony and his sister Sarah. Anthony is in the sixth grade when the owner of the manor passes away, and as there is no next-of-kin, the contents of the house are being auctioned off.

Interesting things always come of big, cavernous, abandoned houses—so it's no surprise that Anthony's purchase—a cigar box of some sort—turns his life and his sister's upside-down. Because the box itself isn't empty, and when water is inadvertently added to the small figurines that occupy it, magic happens. They come to life.

Gaspar, his werespaniel, and his two very strange sisters, are in need of Anthony's help. In return for it, they tell him some part of the history of Morley Manor; it appears that the former owner was, in fact, Gaspar's twin brother, and he imprisoned them all in some arcane way fifty years ago. It seems that Gaspar and his brother Martin, exploring in the way that young boys often do, stumbled across Wentar, a man possessed of arcane knowledge that he was willing to share with the two in return for their aid.

That knowledge led both boys into strange new worlds, and one of those worlds seemed to have made a permanent—and unpleasant—change in Martin.

That would be bad enough, and certainly that would be enough for a single novel, but Coville doesn't stop there. Magic, monsters, giant frogs, aliens and yes, even a trip to the land of the dead, are all wedged in sideways; the book almost has the feel of a crazy camp story, one of those, "and then . . . " improbabilities propelled by sheer energy. The improbable will probably be a little bit too much for adult readers, but when I read parts of it out loud to my eight-year-old son, he loved it; he laughed at the antics of the monkey, smiled gleefully at the idea of being left with a grandmother who didn't much care about food in the living room, and listened, wide-eyed, as Anthony left, pockets full of miniature monsters, on his journey to save he world.

* * *

Being Dead, by Vivian Vande Velde, was less cozy, although the title probably gives that away. It's not a novel; it's a collection of short stories about either being dead or being haunted by the dead. I loved Vande Velde's novels Never Trust a Dead Man and thoroughly enjoyed Magic Can Be Murder, so I came to this with high expectations. I wasn't disappointed. "Drop by Drop," the story that opens the collection, is a ghost story. Brenda, at sixteen years of age, is not a happy young woman. Her parents have inexplicably decided that life in a small town is an acceptable change of pace, and have refused even to consider how painful it is for Brenda to leave all her friends behind. Her brother Danny is too young to be anything other than annoying, and her mother is not exactly a wellspring of parental sympathy. Brenda is determined to cope because she and her friends have all sworn that they'll be together again in College in two long, dismal years.

But the huge new house into which they move has another occupant, one who seems to be trying to speak to Brenda. First, there's the phone. It's ringing. And it's not connected. Then there's the hand in a fish-pond that doesn't even come up to Brenda's knee. It gets worse, and by story's end, we see why.

It's hard to write a review of a short story collection; too much depends on little twists and turns along the way. But Vande Velde's handling of her characters is deft and true, wry and humorous in a way that hints at the pain of growing up. "Dancing with Marjorie's Ghost" and "The Ghost" are both short, with small twists at the end that carry all of their weight; of the seven, they're the slightest. "Shadow Brother" reaches around the trauma of death and loss in war—in this case the Vietnam war—touching upon survivor guilt in the darkness. "For Love of Him" has a twist ending, but the emotional strength of the story doesn't rely on it; Velde captures the adolescent angst and fear of isolation beautifully here. "October Chill" is not so much about being dead, but dying; and the title story, "Being Dead" is probably the only story in which the death itself made me laugh out loud. I did feel a bit guilty about it afterward, though.

All in all, a good collection, and well worth looking up.

* * *

The Wizard's Dilemma by Diane Duane is the fifth in a series of novels about Juanita Callahan (called Nita by pretty much everyone except The Book) and her best friend and partner, Kit. So You Want To Be A Wizard started Nita, the often bullied social outcast, on the road to Wizardry, giving her The Book in which spells—in their mathematical and computational complexity—could be both read and written. It also gave her her first encounter with the Lone One, the being who created death in what might otherwise have been a paradise. Wizards by oath, nature, and desire, are in conflict with the Lone One; they stand for life, and although in the direst of emergencies they are permitted to take life, it is never, ever done lightly, and never without a high cost to the killer.

Lone One or not, Nita has had great success as a Wizard, and her social life, while not exactly something to write home about, has at least calmed down enough that she's no longer constantly worried about being beaten up. She's worried about other things instead: the growing rift between herself and Kit, for one.

And her mother's life, for another, because her mother has been diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis is Not Good.

All of Duane's novels have, in one way or another, dealt with coming of age. Taking great power, and the fantasy of great power, and understanding that there is a responsibility inherent in its use, is a trope that guides most of the fantasy being written for young adults today. But Duane's fifth novel ups the ante: She has not one, but two young Wizards, both possessed of a great deal of power, who have to deal with the fact that there are some evils that power itself can't combat. That love itself doesn't excuse everything; that it can blind in the most painful of ways.

Nita cannot believe that she can do nothing to help her mother, and because she is so determined, she begins to play god in small universes in an attempt to understand how to restructure reality well enough to restructure her mother—literally.

But the only creature in existence who has control over death is the Lone One, and in the end, Nita has a choice to make—one that Duane implies, artfully and quietly, that all people who would be Wizards must make, in the end.

Duane understands the impulses of the human heart, old and young; she's in fine form here. I'm really looking forward to seeing where Nita and Kit go next.

* * *

I read these books, but I was still at a bit of a loss.

And so I turned to Terry Pratchett. This shouldn't come as a surprise; Terry Pratchett novels are books that are stored on a special shelf labelled "for times of unbearable stress," although they could just as easily be stored on a shelf labelled "Read This Now, You Fool" (or a shelf labelled "canned tomatoes," but I digress.)

Ever since Troll Bridge, I have loved Cohen the Barbarian. In Interesting Times, with the gathering of his barbarian horde, I thought he'd found a home and settled down, but apparently he's an old-style hero. They just don't know how to settle down. And it just happens that there's always been a thing or two that he's been itching to do . . . like, say, sneak into the place the Gods call home and cause a large and memorable disturbance.

Unfortunately, while he's big on cunning, and bigger on survival, he's not always the most intelligent of people, and there's a tiny problem with his master plan. Unfortunately for him, and vastly more unfortunately for the rest of the Discworld. For us? It brings Captain Carrot, Rincewind, and Leonard of Quirm into play. And really, how much more can you ask for?

This is supposed to be a lavishly illustrated book. I got a signature with pictures and a bound galley with "A Note to Readers of This Text Only Version". But this text only version is pure Pratchett, and the only complaint that can be made about it at all is that there's only half as much of the Text Only Version as there usually is in a Pratchett novel. It's a pretty small complaint.

I feel, at times, that I should be saying something about Pratchett's structure, or his language, or his incredibly acute observations; that I should laud him, as others do, as a satirist, that I should point out that he clearly understands the mythologies that he subverts so well, that I should say something about his contribution to English Literature. But in the end the bald truth is this: I always feel better after reading a Pratchett novel than I did before I started it. Given the events of the past month, a particular line at novel's end stays with me, and it seems appropriate, somehow.

"He'd never been keen on heroes. But he realized that he needed them to be there, like forests and mountains . . . he might never see them, but they filled some sort of hole in his mind. Some sort of hole in everyone's mind."

I think in some ways, we have seen them in September, this September.

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