November 12, 2009

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I'm on a bit of a YA kick right now. Maybe it's just a perverse rebellion against the Twilight series, but I feel like there's so much excellent fiction out there for young people, and much of it is getting overshadowed by the juggernaut that is vampire romance.

Strictly speaking, The Westing Game isn't really YA lit. It's a "chapter book for young readers, ages 8 -12," but much like The Graveyard Book and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, The Westing Game more than holds up to adult scrutiny. I remember reading it for the first time when I was about twelve and absolutely loving it, but not being able to fully follow the intricate, quick-moving plot. This time around, I not only loved it for it's quirky characters and perfect comic timing, but I also found myself completely sucked into the mystery at its heart. Seriously, I stayed up late last night because I didn't remember the final solution and I really had to know. Good stuff.

The basic premise is a kind of Who-Done-It. A paper-mogul named Sam Westing is found "dead in bed." In his will, he calls together 16 heirs to play "the Westing game." The heirs are an unlikely group which includes a 65 year old delivery boy, a religious fanatic, a 12 year old financial wizard and narcissistic housewife. They are paired with the perfect person, as one of the heirs (a 15 year old ornithologist with a degenerative disorder) notes. They each receive a set of clues and the directive to find out which of them stole Sam Westing's life. The winning pair then receives the bulk of Westing's multi-million dollar estate. But most of the heirs are not what they seem (there's a bomber, a thief, a bookie, and Sam Westing himself hiding in the mix) and the goal is to find out who is who before it's too late.

Ellen Raskin won the Newbury Award for The Westing Game in 1979, and it's a masterpiece of a mystery. But what really sets it apart, above and beyond the intricate plotting and accessible voice, is that each character undergoes some sort of transformation over the course of the book. This is quite a thing to pull off, but Raskin's hand is light, and her control of the material complete. Each of the heirs gets his or her arc without detracting from the whole - in fact, that quality of personal growth is what makes them work as a group.

The Westing Game is great fun and compulsively readable, but there's much more going on. For a literary mystery with humor and substance, I'm not sure that it can be beat - who cares if you have to go to the kid's section of the library to find it.

November 9, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

And next on the Neil Gaiman line-up: The Graveyard Book. I promise I'll write about something by another author next, but I was on a roll, and I'm really glad I was - The Graveyard Book is, for my money, Neil Gaiman's best work. Hands down. I've found that many excellent, prolific authors have one story or one book that transcends everything else they've written (and sometimes everything else they will ever write). A.S. Byatt has Possession, Margaret Atwood has The Blind Assassin, Iain M. Banks has Use of Weapons and Neil Gaiman has The Graveyard Book.

The Graveyard Book is the coming of age story of a mortal boy named Nobody Owens, who is raised by the kind spirits of a graveyard. The book begins chillingly with the murder of the boy's family, then coasts into charming episodic chapters about his life from the age of two to roughly fifteen. The episodes are by turns insightful and quirky and sometimes quite dark. Death is a regular presence in the book, but that isn't the source of the darkness. The darkness comes from the perils of growing up, and from the shadow cast by the man who killed Nobody Owens' family, a man called Jack who, years later, is still trying to finish the job.

Neil Gaiman as said that Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book served inspiration, and Kipling's influence is definitely evident in The Graveyard Book's structure and themes - especially in its themes. Belonging, isolation and the bittersweetness of growing up are foundational to both books, and the episodic pacing keeps the plot moving so that these themes can be touched on without beating an already well-beaten dead horse.

This is really wonderful book and a really scattershot post. Every time I settle into addressing one aspect of the book, I get pulled in another direction, it's just so pitch-perfect, so thoughtful and so bittersweet. This is Neil Gaiman's perfect book. I hope it gets read widely and voraciously because it deserves every award it could get.

November 3, 2009

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline is wonderful. I'm not sure if it's an exception to the rule or the start of a trend, but I think that it is by far Neil Gaiman's best work. The reviewer at Locus Magazine was quoted as saying that "Coraline may be Gaiman's most disciplined and fully controlled novel to date," and it is this discipline and control that makes Coraline stand out.

To begin with, it's starts with a wonderful idea - that on the other side of a hidden door, a girl finds an "other" world, where her other mother and other father live and where everything is much more interesting. It's a lovely place. Except for the shiny, black buttons that everyone there has instead of eyes. Coraline is immediately wary, and she is right to be so. But we don't have to wait for her to go through the door for things to get strange - it's creepy right out of the gate. Odd things happen, things that when taken out of context mean nothing. But put them in context, and an air of foreboding quickly settles over Coraline's new house.

I really appreciated the tightness and lucidity of the story - especially because it would have been a cinch to let the material run away with itself (Gaiman was writing on very fertile ground). I loved Coraline's creepiness - as an adult, I was never scared, but I would have been as a kid, and I have to admit to a certain amount of edginess every now and then, even as an adult. But the thing I loved most about Coraline was Coraline herself. She's a wonderful, modern, no-fuss girl, very intelligent and very bored. And she's no easy mark for the evil that intrudes upon her world. Unlike her counterpart in the film adaptation (which was nowhere near as good as the book), the literary Coraline is never seduced by the "other" world, as most children would be. She is wise and brave in the face of frightening things, she wins through cleverness twice, and in a lovely, subtle stroke at the end, she learns not to be bored in the mundane world.

Coraline is everything that it could be, and that's saying quite a lot. Neil Gaiman recently won the Newbury Award for his newest book for young readers, The Graveyard Book. Before reading Coraline, I have to admit I was a little doubtful, but based on the strength of the book I just finished, I'm really looking forward to reading whatever Gaiman writes next.

Postscript: I just started The Graveyard Book (I'm on a roll), and I have to say that it's really wonderful so far. :-)