Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Seven Deadly Sins Meet a Disappointing End

Oh, Mr. Nix, how could you? I'm so disappointed. I devoted myself to each new release of your seven-book The Keys to the Kingdom series, only to arrive at this shoddy end? Alas.

Honestly, I didn't expect it to be as good as Nix's Abhorsen trilogy. TKttK started out fairly strong, stayed interesting for a while, and then got increasingly weaker. The formula felt a bit tired out. None of the characters seemed to develop. The fantasy world was muddled and random. The religious imagery was a good idea to start but didn't seem to hold much significance. And yet...I was hoping for a satisfying ending that would clarify some things. I regained interest as the action in Lord Sunday was fast-paced, and then I came to the final chapter. I was very, very disappointed.


Yeah, so here's basically what happened. The House is being destroyed by Nothing (ever read or seen The Neverending Story? Yeah, not completely original), so Nix gets to the point where he has two choices: he can either magically stop the Nothing and fix the House/save the world, or he can let it destroy and kill everything, and then bring it all back. Both are pretty cheap tricks, in my opinion. In the final chapter, all in a hurry, Arthur gets ultimate power, a few enigmatic characters are "revealed" (to no real satisfaction), everything gets destroyed, the dang Architect complains that she's tired and just up and LEAVES, and Arthur brings it all back, book over. Oh, yeah, except his mom is dead, so he takes about one sentence to let that sink in, and then everyone goes about their business, blah, blah, blah....SO CRAPPY. There's no payoff for any of the detailed religious imagery, and no creative explanation for this spiritual dimension or its impact on the real world. Ugh.

Oh, yeah, and his sweet little yellow elephant who came to life to help Arthur just got KILLED and then left with no followup. I think I'm more ticked about that than anything.

Oh, and I hate the cover art on this last book. It's completely freaking me out, and not in a good way, partly because of his glowing eyes but partly because Arthur has the hairstyles of an old, frumpy woman with too much hairspray. Also, the cage and hedge pictured look cheap. Cheap like the ENDING.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Conventions Unconventional

My canon contains many books about bright young girls who aspire to an education and career that seem unattainable. There are several other conventions at work in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and each of them comes across as fresh and convincing. Jacqueline Kelly's young adult novel is about Callie, an 11-year-old girl with six brothers, growing up on a Texas farm in 1899. The story begins during a summer heat wave as Callie develops an interest in the natural world. Her observations and inquiries draw the attention of her grandfather, a reclusive codger who intimidates and generally ignores his grandchildren. Callie and Grandfather Tate discover a mutual love of natural science, much to the consternation of Callie's stern mother, who intends for her only daughter to be a proper young lady, debutante, and capable wife and mother.

Callie is disinterested in and lousy at household duties, but she's quite the impressive scientist. Although her parents can afford and hope to send their eldest son to college, Callie is the one child who really yearns to go (a vexing injustice!). Mr. and Mrs. Tate are strict but caring, and they aren't unlikable, but it's maddening that they can't see their daughter's true potential. Callie feels "like a coyote with its foot caught in a trap" and grows increasingly depressed about her fate, but she also develops a beautifully intellectual and tender relationship with her grandfather, who is sympathetic and encouraging yet doesn't try to undermine Callie's parents. There are a handful of scenes in which Callie is so frustrated with her parents' cluelessness that had me in tears. But one of the greatest joys-within-misery of life is finding the one person who understands you amongst a great many who do not, am I right?

Callie's practice of natural observation also hones her understanding of her friends and family members. She gains a special respect for her mother and the family cook, and is more adept at dealing with her little brother Travis's sensitive personality than anyone in the family. Although imperfect, she grows less selfish and more admirable with each page.

The conclusion is open-ended yet optimistic: Whereas part of me wanted a nice, tidy ending for Callie, I appreciated even more the final chapter's vision of hope.

Kelly's descriptive prose is exquisite. (Incidentally, Jacqueline Kelly is also a practicing physician and lawyer--who makes me feel like a fruitless sluggard!) Often I had to put the book down and pause, then reread a paragraph, because the language is breathtaking. She turns naturalist observations into poetry. Below are a few examples.

The opening lines to the novel are haunting: "By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still pure pitch. We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny wavering suns."

Grandfather Tate describes a small bat who flew into his tent: "Although it still seemed only partly sensible to its surroundings, its feet gripped the twine in what I supposed to be a kind of primitive reflex, and it folded itself with particularity and hung there as if in nature, presenting a compact parcel surprisingly tidy and pleasing to the eye."

Callie describes a caterpillar: "Petey curled into a fuzzy comma when I put the leaves in his jar."

A fuzzy comma! I still haven't gotten over it. Doesn't her way with words makes you want to leap for joy?

Finally, can you even get over that cover art? The silhouette of Callie with a butterfly net surrounded by curious creatures and plants is striking. The book was on display at our library, and I stared at it every time I walked by it, and finally decided to check it out just because the cover is incredible. I'm so glad I did.