Magical Realism: The Buried Giant

Axl and Beatrice, ill-treated inhabitants of a rustic warren in medieval England, awaken on a fine spring day and realize that they have forgotten to do something important: they must take a few days journey to visit their long lost adult son in a nearby village. Why they haven’t seen their son in so long and exactly where he lives is not clear to them. In fact, Beatrice and Axl have a very difficult time remembering almost anything, even visitors to their warren that had stayed only a month before. The reader is immediately moved by their plight as they are both sweet, gentle, and particularly tender toward one another.  Sadly, life in the warren has been made more difficult for them as they are deprived of even the simplest creature comforts, such as a candle to light in the dark night, because of their advanced age.

Soon enough, the reader understands that everyone, not just in the warren, but in villages all over the country, is forgetting events both personal and political. Axl and Beatrice call this the ‘mist’ as it seems a fog that keeps the facts of their lives just out of viewing. There is a rumor that the mist is caused by the great dragon Querig. Added to the troubles of the old couple is a dawning understanding, culled from the tales of grieving widows, that they must cross a river with a boatman who tricks couples into journeying separately unless they can prove, by answering his questions, that their lifelong love has been perfect. With the mist over people’s memories, how can they satisfactorily answer the boatman’s questions?

The reader understands that the boatman is crossing over to the island beyond death. Add to this frightening prospect that the lonely, uncharted country is full of highwaymen as well as supernatural dangers from ogres, dragons, and pixies, and it is a very brave pair that takes a journey on a hunch.

As Axl and Beatrice proceed on their adventure, the relationship between the Britons and Saxons after the death of King Arthur is highlighted. Historically, then, this is probably seventh century England. “There were . . . miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land.”

The couple stop for the night in a Saxon village where Beatrice has traded goods in the past. She hopes to seek medical advice from a herbalist for a constant pain. The date of their arrival is, coincidentally, the same date when a Saxon hero is returning after saving a local boy from a group of ogres. By the description of the monster’s torn limbs, I thought he was Beowulf. But he is Wistan, on a secret mission from his king. Circumstances and the village’s superstitions combine to cause him to travel with the saved boy, Axl, and Beatrice.

Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Court whom the group meets along the way, also has a quest, and it seems that the two knights—Saxon and Briton—are in competition for glory. However, their purposes are even more secretive—and more dark—that it first appears.

While Axl and Beatrice’s journey involves a good deal of danger, death, and the witness of hand-to-hand combat, their constant concern for one another and their goal to stay together create a sweetly melancholic emotional atmosphere. I didn’t want to part from this couple. Yet, this is a book of reckoning, and there is no avoiding its end. Truthful, loving or not, the world is a difficult place and ultimately does not yield easily to human desire.

High school housekeeping: Don’t let the fact that Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize winner scare you off. The Buried Giant is brilliant and beautifully written, a book that will engage you without feeling ‘difficult.’ The medieval setting has popular appeal. Sir Gawain roams the countryside in a suit of armor, which was a later invention, apparently beginning in the thirteenth century. No matter though—with dragons, ogres and pixies dotting the otherwise realistically rough and rustic setting, the combination of realism and fantasy is a smooth one.

The novel is not particularly long (nor too short). I know that many English classes include ‘the hero’s journey’ in their curriculum. If a teacher should ask you to read a novel and discuss elements of the hero’s journey that you find there, you won’t find a better choice. Check this out.


Posted in Adventure Stories, Fable/Fairy Tale/Fantasy, Fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Horror: The Haunting of Hill House

This is actually a post from my blog about authors and writing. I thought it would be helpful to some here as it has links to a lot of good horror.

Please have a look:


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Gender Fluidity: Symptoms of Being Human

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin 

Gender fluid teenager Riley Cavanaugh starts an anonymous blog at the suggestion of their therapist. Even this anonymous version of coming out takes Riley some time—as well as a major crisis and a suicide attempt, a change in high schools and a cautious seeking of new friends while dressing as gender neutrally as possible.

Riley poses as Alix online, discussing what it is like to experience both bullying and gender dysphoria. Immediately, an online community forms around the blog, with both transgender and gender fluid teens seeking Alix’s advice. When the blog is recommended by ‘,’ a spectaculator number of follower results. Of course, the trolls, with their messages of hate and attempts to humiliate, appear as well.

Anxiety, already a problem for Riley, deepens when some of the troll comments indicate that an anonymous commenter knows Riley’s real identity—the child of a Congressman who is running for reelection in very conservative Orange County, CA. In fact, this particular troll hints that they attend the same high school.

Riley is under pressure to delete the blog and go into hiding. But hiding has not worked thus far. Summoning courage and with the help of two new allies—Bec (who may be more than just a friend) and Solo, who has the ability to walk a line between the popular and the outcast—Riley pushes through ‘the gauntlet’ to face both hate and violence.

High school housekeeping: There are many reasons I enjoyed Symptoms of Being Human. An odd one that others may not relate to is that Riley is in Fullerton, CA, which is near Anaheim Hills, which is near Villa Park. I grew up in Villa Park and thought that Riley’s high school—Park Hills—might be a mashup of the names of the two ultra conservative cities.  Much more significant is that as a teacher librarian, in the last year before I retired, I was on the prowl for YA fiction (nonfiction was less difficult to find) that represented transgender and gender fluid teens in a sympathetic manner. I found very little. I read adult books, and was very hopeful for one in particular. But ultimately, it wasn’t going to work for teens or for a school library for many reasons although it was a beautiful work of literature. So—happy to see YA work on the scene.

As I often mention, I enjoy books when I enjoy the writing itself. Symptoms of Being Human has some lovely bits (I think I picked that phrase up in Ireland last week). Here’s one, a description of Park Hills High at lunch: “When the bell rings at the end of French, I’m the last one out of the classroom. The quad is already crawling with students, all of them swarming toward the outdoor eating area like ants descending on the remains of a discarded popsicle.”  And this: “I don’t know whether to fall onto my bed and bury my face in my pillow or jump around the room, squealing like a guinea pig on meth.” There are lots more—enjoy discovering them when you read the novel.

Reading Symptoms of Being Human validates my reading ‘plan’: buy books at every bookstore and author event you go to, even if you have a ton of unread books at home. Then every time you’re ready to start a new book, you have a hundred of them in the house to choose from and can grab what best fits the moment. I bought Symptoms all the way back in March at the Ontario Teen Book Fest. I’ve been reading fantasy for awhile on the recommendation of one of my sons. But since I was going on a trip to Ireland to see the country where my Catholic progenitors hailed from, and since one of my family names is Cavanaugh (spelled with a ‘C’ like Riley’s last name), I figured it was a sign that now was the perfect time to read Riley’s story. I was right.

Posted in bullying, Family Problems, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Ballad of Huck and Miguel

A friend who has a daughter working with Friends of the LA River took a few of us 29FD737E-999D-43C3-B763-0540BB07EAF9on an LA River tour for our birthdays. It was odd to see the sections of the river that have a soil, rather than a concrete, bottom. Though narrow and contained by steeply sloping concrete walls, this section of the river provides a much-needed respite from the surrounding city. As the adjacent railroad tracks and their noisy trains turned away from the river, we saw more and more wildlife: geese, mallard ducks, coots, a blue heron, birds of prey. Their songs and sounds were a welcome change.

As we walked, we saw children of various ages, apparently YMCA summer camp participants, enjoying the river. Older children, about fifth grade, were on the river, exploring. Younger ones, about second grade, were doing a science lesson at the LA River Park. They each had a cup of river water and were noting the visible life—mostly tiny snails—that lived there.

How strange that I didn’t even know the location of this natural space in the city. I had only thought to explore it because I had seen articles about it in the LA Times. This fact—that the river exists without many people knowing about it—is one of the premises of the novel “The Ballad of Huck and Miguel.” If you are a fan of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” you’ll have a lot of fun reading this book. If you are also familiar with the LA River, you’ll probably give this novel a five-star review.

The set up here is similar to Twain’s novel: Huck is living with his racist, drunken, abusive father and hopes to escape. And many of the same characters appear on this journey although they have different personalities and sometimes different purposes. For example, the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson are now Ms. Douglas and Ms. Watson—and rather than good cop/bad cop (with Miss Watson being the slave owner of Jim and a deeply, hypocritically pious woman)—they are a married lesbian couple (thespians, Huck thinks, mixing up words as he does in the original, to humorous effect). Both are kind guardians to Huck.

Characters who have the same purpose now use modern schemes to employ them. So the Duke is a rapscallion here, but his schemes to dupe and steal are related to medical fraud rather than bilking girls out of their inheritance.

In another updating, Huck finds himself on the run with a ‘Mexigrant’ (undocumented Mexican immigrant)—Miguel—on the LA River.

Pap isn’t as easy to get rid of in this tale, so he provides a lot of action. In places he is directly quoted from the original to great effect, especially in his racist rants about the government, and his fury that Huck is getting an education and is too high and mighty.

It’s a lot of fun to see how DeRoche has stayed true to the spirit of Huck with his update. Another joy are the numerous linocuts by Daniel Gonzalez that illustrate the story (the cover illustration is one example with color added). If you’re a Huck fan, you really can’t go wrong with this one.

Posted in Adventure Stories, Classic Fiction, Family Problems, Fiction, Multicultural | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Navigating the Darkness

I know I’ve been slacking on my book reviews, but only because I’ve been working on some other teen-centric literary stuff, including getting the word out about the teen issue of Inlandia Literary Journeys. I’m so excited about all the submissions we got! It’s going to be a great spring issue.

Meanwhile, I just posted on my blog about the Ontario Teen Book Fest. I thought that might be of interest to School Library Lady followers as well. It’s here:



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Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide


I was excited to learn that Isabel Quintero wrote a new YA book because my students had enjoyed Gabi: A Girl in Pieces so much. (I only use the past tense because I retired; they are most likely still enjoying it.) However, it wasn’t until I went to a reading event last weekend in Riverside, where Quintero was one of the authors, that I realized the new book is not a novel, but graphic nonfiction.

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide was commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, I imagine, because Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide deserves to be known by young people. Since Quintero is a poet as well as a fiction and nonfiction writer, she was a great choice to bring this book into the world. Her language is a perfect for the discussion of creative vision. Zeke Peña illustrated the book and he does a beautiful job. (You may recognize him as the cover artist for Gabi.) Some of Iturbide’s photos are included beside Pena’s black and white illustrations.

Iturbide’s story begins with her path of marriage and motherhood, a typical journey for a Catholic girl from a conservative Mexican family in the 1960s. In fact, a typical path for many young people throughout history. However, she was always creative; she wasrestless. She decided on the path of a photographer, using only black and white film because it expresses reality for her. This choice is not an easy one, as Quintero reminds the reader. “Do you know how painful sacrifice can be? Graciela gave up a life of comfort and convention—choosing instead the path of the artist and risking everything.”

Iturbide had the opportunity to work with other very talented photographers including Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who showed her that photographs should not be staged, but rather waited for. It takes talent to catch the right moment, and Iturbides does it regularly, becoming famous and having the opportunity to travel the world. She documents her vision through many cultures “where ritual is survival. How else can culture be held onto?” Even in her native Mexico, she encounters the women of Juchitan and sees freedom from patriarchy that she couldn’t have imagined in her conservative upbringing.

While Iturbide is a renowned photographer, I’m sorry to say that I had never heard of her until I read this book. Happily, both Quintero and Peña had seen and been influenced by stagings of her photographs years ago. They knew they were the right people to bring Iturbide’s story to a younger generation. And, happily, to me, too.

I recommend Photographic to all teens. Since it’s a graphic novel, the illustrations aid the emergent reader. For those reading at grade level and above, the the story of sacrifice and creativity will inspire. For artists, there are the illustrations. For photographers, there are nice details about finding a subject and making it art. For poets and writers, there is the lovely language.

Posted in Biography/Memoir, Family Problems, Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction/Historical Element, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Orca Limelights: “The Frail Days”

frail days.jpg Stella Wing (because it sounds more ‘new-punk’ than Wang) with her nose piercing and fire-engine-red hair is no Disney princess. She’s a drummer in a nameless band that needs a singer.

Jacob is her guitarist and Miles plays the bass. “‘The problem is,’ Jacob says, . . . ‘every person who wants to sing in a band is either a poser or a diva or a wanker.’”

Every girl they audition sings without soul.

It’s ironic, then, that a girl who has been kicked out of Fantalicious, the locally popular all-girl group with tweener-appeal, might be the perfect fit. Fanticilious members have talent in butt wriggling and lip-syncing to their own Auto-Tuned voices. So Tamara Donnelly hasn’t been kicked out because she can’t sing. She is shunned because she’s not rocking a tiny body (she, too, is no Disney Princess). But she can sing like “the love child of Annie Lennox and David Bowie.”

As they look forward to auditions for a summer festival, Stella, Tamara, Jacob and Miles all have to answer for themselves the question that haunts all creative souls: do they answer the call to a creative life? In the case of the band, the choices are many. Do they go with the safer bet of covering a popular song? Individually make backup plans and forget how well they work as a group? Go for it all and risk the opportunity to perform if the judges don’t grasp their off-beat creativity?
High school housekeeping: The Frail Days is part of the Orca Limelight’s series. It’s meant for teens reading below grade level. The Lexile level is 680; it’s under 120 pages. It addresses a universal issue about seeking a creative life, so it will speak to most teens. Budding musicians will particularly enjoy it. People who have been judged for their appearance, including their weight, will find familiar ground but may be delighted by the characters’ manner of dealing with prejudices.

Posted in Fiction, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Humor, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments