Monday, October 29, 2012

When Marnie Was There (Book Review)

Title: When Marnie Was There
Author: Joan G. Robinson     Illustrated: Peggy Fortnum
Publication Information: Armada paperback, original pub date 1967
Genre: Children’s Fiction / Time Slip

Plot: Lonely Anna, an inarticulate orphan who lives with a kindly older couple who do not understand her, goes to stay in Norfolk with their friends after being ill with asthma. Exploring the area, she is entranced by the Marsh House on a creek nearby and by Marnie, an outgoing girl her age who appears and disappears mysteriously from the house. When Marnie is there, she is the perfect friend – she is imaginative and comes up with great games – but the reader guesses she is not real and the locals think Anna is talking to herself. As in Tom’s Midnight Garden, the loneliness of two children in the same place but many years apart results in a friendship that transcends time. Although her friendship with Marnie is not without sadness (which she does not understand), it helps prickly Anna learn how to be a friend and how to accept affection. The outgoing Lindsay family that moves into the old house on the creek after Marnie disappears for good completes the process, showing Anna what it is like to be part of a large and lively family and helping her come to terms with her foster parents and the birth family she feels abandoned her.
What I liked: I always enjoy books about mysterious houses in the (usually) English country and am even more devoted to stories about plucky orphans (as if you hadn't guessed). Add some time travel or time slip* and I am delighted. The author’s description of Anna’s fey friendship with Marnie is contrasted convincingly with the outgoing Lindsay family which embraces Anna and gives her the confidence she desperately needs. Anna wasn’t exactly plucky to begin with – she is sullen and somewhat despairing when the story begins but her maturation is both convincing and heartwarming. The reader, who always knew that the adults in Anna’s life cared about her, is reassured that moving forward Anna will no longer be an isolated observer from the sidelines. One is also glad that the Prestons, her kind foster parents, will have an improved relationship with Anna in the future.

I recognized the name of the illustrator, Peggy Fortnum, but could not immediately identify her other work (more than 65 books, it turns out). She is best known for her illustrations of Paddington but some of her work is expensively for sale.

What I disliked: I am not a fan of time slip/time travel where it turns out to have all been a dream. I was worried things were going that way in the second half of the book so was delighted when there was proof that Anna had not imagined her encounters with Marnie.

Source: I read this as a child and finally bought my own paperback copy in 1989. I was reminded of this delightful story by someone on Shelf Discovery.

* Time Travel vs. Time Slip

Fans of these genres may dispute the difference between time travel and time slip but for my purpose today time travel involves traveling through time into the past or into the future whereas a time slip involves a rift in the fabric of time that allows travel between two or more periods of time. It is definitely more gradual and the character does not always recognize what is happening, as here. In this book, Marnie and Anna do not physically travel but Anna slips back to Marnie’s time.

What do you think?

2014 News

A Japanese anime film of When Marnie Was There has been made, written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, produced by Studio Ghibli, and based on the novel, which is known as Omoide no Marnie in Japan.  Here is a link to the trailer.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Girl Named Digit (Book Review)

Title: A Girl Named Digit
Author: Annabel Monaghan
Publication Information: Houghton Mifflin Hardcover, 2012
Genre: YA Suspense

Plot: Farrah Higgins is a gifted high school senior, already admitted to MIT, who learned the hard way that if she reveals that she is a math genius, she will seem like a freak and won’t have any friends. She escaped the dreaded nickname “Digit” by switching schools and camouflaging her intelligence to fit in at school, which saddens her father who had enjoyed sharing logic games with her. However, when Farrah notices an odd pattern of numbers shown on a TV show, analyzes it and unlocks a terrorist code, she suddenly finds herself on the run with a handsome young FBI agent. The terrorist plot is not incredibly convincing but the depiction of Farrah’s quirky family, John’s father (who, charmingly, approves of their burgeoning romance and really understands Farrah), and Farrah’s friend Olive (who she completely underestimated) make this a very appealing read.

What I liked: Of course, I love books about smart girls and guys who appreciate them! There are lots of books about girls who are aspiring writers but fewer about girls who are good at math or science. While I enjoyed the cute Princeton hero, what made the book for me were Farrah’s hilarious internal monologues. I added a few quotes to those already on Goodreads.
What I disliked: Ugh, I hated the character’s real name and her nickname. I guess it was meant to make the reader accept that a nickname suited her better than her name but still. Why would her clueful father ever have permitted such an absurd name? And aren’t FBI agents trained not to get into cabs that are trying to pick them up?  Please, John!

Source: I got this from the library after reading Ms. Yingling Reads’ review but plan to buy a copy for my nieces.  Disappointed I missed seeing the author speak in Newton in September.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Secret Keeper (Book Review)

Title: The Secret Keeper
Author: Kate Morton
Publication Information: Simon & Schuster/Atria Hardcover, October 2012
Genre: Fiction
Plot: As her mother approaches death, Laurel Nicolson, an acclaimed actress, remembers a day and a secret from her childhood that has always haunted her – she was hiding in a tree when a stranger approached her mother, who stabbed him to death with the knife usually saved for birthday cakes. Laurel gave information to the police that supported her mother’s explanation of self-defense but is now determined to find out what really happened that summer day, causing her to leave home and never fully regain the easy, affectionate family life of her childhood.
Starting with just an inscription in a book and a photo from London in the 40s, Laurel traces the fatal friendship between her mother, Dorothy Smitham, a put-upon companion to a cranky but aristocratic old lady, and her glamorous neighbor, Vivien Jenkins. Dorothy’s sweetheart from the country, Jimmy Metcalfe, photographed Dolly and Vivien together as London faced World War II and the Blitz, providing one clue. As Laurel unlocks the secrets of the past, she finally understands what caused her mother to act so deliberately when her family was threatened and can console the dying woman.

What I liked: I always enjoy books that move back and forth from the present to the past, and this is something Morton is especially good at. Her descriptions of present-day Laurel and her squabbling sisters, all in their sixties, are all too convincing but more compelling is the depiction of Dolly Smitham, an ambitious young woman in London during WWII, determined to better herself, and yearning for a friend who represents the casual elegance and social confidence she seeks. Dolly is so desperate to achieve her goals that she loses sight of reality and does not realize that Vivien has problems of her own. Dolly is judged hardly by those around her but I felt a lot of sympathy for a young woman with no family trying to make her way alone in London. And I always like a book set in WWII England!
Other authors I enjoy who glide gracefully from the present to the past are Robert Goddard, Susanna Kearsley, Suzanne Brockmann, and Anthony Price.

What I disliked: I was disappointed in Morton’s last book, The Distant Hours. Although well written, the story was just too depressing and the characters too eccentric. Both the past and present left me indifferent (although I supposed I cared sufficiently that I kept on reading). Here, I was not as interested in the present day characters as in the romantic triangle of the past but eagerly followed Laurel’s research and her decision to confide in her brother, and I liked the way each discovery was interposed with the past. The three main characters – Dolly, Jimmy, and Vivien – were compelling and the long-buried secret was worth waiting for (which is not always the case). I will say that Laurel’s research was accomplished with unconvincing ease but I appreciated the missing pieces. I will reread some segments more slowly now.
Verdict: Highly recommended! 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Covers: The top cover is the American edition (following the look Atria has given the previous books), the second cover is from the UK, and the one with the hat is from the author's native Australia. I like the second one best but what is she touching?  The third one has a dated WWII look I find appealing but would not have been accepted by a US publisher.  Which do you like best?

Source: Simon & Schuster sent me an advanced reading copy prior to publication.