Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Alex is preparing to enjoy a weekend alone. All by himself. Without his pesky little sister. His parents have decided he’s old enough to stay by himself while they drive off a few towns over in Iowa to visit relatives.

Unfortunately this is the weekend that the volcano underlying the caldera that we know as Yellowstone Park decides to release some pent-up tension, thus distributing several inches to several feet of ash across the majority of the United States.

Alex sets out to find his family, gone to a neighboring town that’s close enough if you’re able to drive, and a long hike in ideal circumstances. But cars can’t function with all the ash in the air, and the mix of ash and snow on the ground makes walking unfeasible. He slogs along on foot for a few miles, before he rigs himself a pair of skis, and traverses this newly transformed alien society, meeting a range of people. Some organized. Some scrabbling helplessly on their own. Some cruel. Some humane.

…and I’ll stop there, except to say that while the ending is not wholly bleak and inconclusive—he doesn’t find his parents and sister, but he does find a safe refuge, which welcomes the capable Darla on the pair’s own terms—it’s clearly a setup for a sequel or two.

I have to admit this was one of my favorite post-apocalypse books yet.

Mullin picked a more-or-less plausible trigger for the apocalypse. Yellowstone is a long-dormant but still-active volcano; hence all the pretty geysers splurting about. Its caldera is so huge that for decades and centuries, we’ve thought it was just a really wide indentation. He also thought through the physical effects of that much ash being dumped, with cataclysmic rapidity, into the upper atmosphere.

Anything with an internal combustion engine will cease functioning with appalling rapidity. Anyone who remembers driving through the ash cloud after Mount St. Helens erupted can attest to the effect that even a comparatively small amount of volcanic ash has on automobile engines, though in fairness to the likely readers, this is something that even their parents might be too young to remember.

The ash cloud’s effect on food crops and animals is also plausible. Plants can’t grow since the clouds block the sun permanently—no photosynthesis, not to mention the precipitous drop in temperature plays merry bleep with their ability to grow at all. Animals start getting silicosis as the ash erodes their lungs. Kale is the only plant that survives, and that only if the people are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse. (But I’ll stop there to avoid including spoilers in the review.) The absence of plants means the onset of something we haven’t seen since the advent of reliable canning: scurvy. I’m not entirely convinced that it’d get to the stage Mullin describes as rapidly as he describes it; he is, however, correct that it’s swifter than we might think, especially if the person’s diet hasn’t been great pre-apocalypse. Though I’ll draw a veil over the survivors’ solution again to avoid spoilers, I have to admit I think it’s an ingenious one.

I really liked how Mullin handled the relationship between Alex and Darla. (sorry. yes: that is slightly spoilerish) Darla’s not a screamer: she’s a tough survivor who has considerable mechanical ability.

I wasn’t too crazy about the FEMA camp; its corruption and pettiness is in disconcertingly stark contrast to the more plausible range of human reactions. It’s only a couple of months since the volcano erupted. I know we’re on more of a knife-edge, in terms of actual food supplies, at any given moment than most people realize. Also, there’s an issue of transportation: cars only go a few miles before the engines choke with ash. Rather, the rest of the book seems so well thought out, and so well realized, that stumbling into that morass struck me as a more than slightly unsubtle social commentary on the Woez and Ebils of Big Gummint. Especially since the local and municipal governments seem to manage to arrange things more peaceably and equably.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce

Warning: spoiler down at the bottom. The perhaps-necessary prefatory explanation: the book was written in 1958 and it’s set in England. Greater London, in the direction of Cambridge and Fen Country (but then the southeastern third of England is Greater London, and was even then.)

For my own records as much as telling anyone else about the plot: Tom is being sent away from home for some weeks, while his brother gets over measles. The two boys had been looking forward to spending a delightful summer together building a tree house in the old apple tree in the bottom of their admittedly small town garden. Now Tom is stuck moping around his aunt and uncle’s completely gardenless city flat, quarantined until he’s gotten through the incubation period for measles himself.

Bored out of his skull after only a few days of confinement indoors, he lies awake, insomniac, night after night, until the fateful night when the grandfather clock downstairs strikes thirteen. He creeps downstairs to find out what’s up, and opens the door that leads out into the yard so the moonlight will fall on the clock face so he can read it…

…but outside he sees not the manky little scrap of sickly grass and paved yard, with dustbins, which his aunt and uncle have told him is there, but rather a huge garden. The sort found surrounding manor houses of a century long gone, even at the time the book was written. Rows of columnar yew trees divide the kitchen gardens from the flower walk from the croquet court from the greenhouse conservatory; this much he can see from his cursory stroll through the garden that moonlit midnight.

Over the next few days, or rather nights, he explores the garden further. There are children living here, three boys all older than he, and a forlorn girl cousin his age, always tagging along behind the boys, who prefer not to play with her for reasons other than ‘she’s a girl’ and ‘she’s younger than we are’.

His visit is scheduled to end in a couple of weeks, when his brother’s recovered from the measles and it’s clear that Tom himself isn’t going to come down with them, but Tom begs to remain. Nonplussed, his parents and aunt and uncle agree; he’s told only Peter of what’s going on, so only the two brothers understand why Tom wishes to remain. Over the course of the next few weeks, Tom and Hatty become close friends, though he is only a ghost to her, only nebulously present; walking through doors just gives him a funny feeling in his tum and he’s forced to instruct Hatty from the sidelines on how to make a toy bow because he can’t hold the knife to cut the branch or tie the string.

Though for Tom, the visits are nightly, on Hatty’s end they’re sporadic; Tom only comes every few weeks or months. Over the course of the book, we see Hatty growing up, and on Tom’s last visit, it’s clear that she’s on the verge of marrying the young man who’s been courting her.

‘Invisible friend’, dreams, or actual visits? We’ll never know.

A bit dated now–the book was written in 1958–so modern kids might be left wondering about things like the protagonist being sent away because his brother has measles. Otherwise it’s a fun book for dreamy readers. Astute readers will figure out the connection between the girl in the garden and Tom’s modern-day life, but it’s fun nevertheless. If you liked books like Magic Elizabeth or Octagon Magic, this is probably for you, especially if you’re a dreamy boy who wants to read books about boys.

(The spoiler? “Hatty”, the girl Tom keeps meeting in the garden, turns out to be the child version of the grumpy cantankerous old landlady, out of whose presence he’s been kept for the entire visit (even after he was out of quarantine).

Long Lankin by Lindsay Barraclough

Hello, children. All tucked in for the night? I’ve a lovely bedtime story for you. Too bad the storms have taken out the power lines and brought down the phone lines, but then I find that the flicker of a single candle’s light is so much more conducive to letting one’s imagination roam free.

What’s that you say? Someone’s coming up the stairs? Nonsense. It’s just the wind blowing across the marshes. This house always creaks, in calm and in storm…let me lock the door, just to make you more comfortable. Here, let me tuck up your comforter a bit higher, for protection against the phantoms of the night…er, drafts.

All set? Then let me begin. Barraclough’s novel Long Lankin is based on a ballad by the same name, in which a departing husband warns his wife to beware Long Lankin, who lives in the (depending on which version you’re singing) hay, moss, moors or marsh, and to fasten the doors and windows firmly against Lankin while the husband’s away…of course Lankin gets in anyway, or we wouldn’t have much of a ballad or story. He kills the baby, with the assistance of the erstwhile nurse. Lankin is hung, the nurse burned. There’s some question in regards the original ballad as to whether Lankin’s a living human being, or something more supernatural. Barraclough chooses option B.

Barraclough follows this basic trope and elaborates on it, in the process channeling every single nocturnal phantasm of my childhood; I challenge anyone to read this book on a dark and stormy night while alone in a house apart from any other human dwelling. Heck, I had trouble reading it myself in broad daylight—but then it’s hard to see the text when you’re hiding behind the sofa from the book.

The year is 1958, and Cora and her younger sister Mimi have been sent to live with their (great)Aunt Ida, in a small village caught between the tidal marshes and the deserted moors. (Yep. Exactly what you’re thinking.) Ida clearly does not want them, though she doesn’t specify why; the children simply assume it’s because she’s a crotchety, eccentric old lady who prefers to live alone. Ida insists on a number of peculiar restrictions: keep all the doors locked and the windows nailed shut, don’t go down to the near-derelict old church, don’t go near the creek or the tidal flats and so on. The children do their best, but soon rebel against remaining in the musty stuffy overheated house.

Needless to say, the kids disobey her the first chance they get, as who wouldn’t given the lack of explanations. Needless to say, the kids trigger the supernatural events of the book thereby. We progress from Mimi restarting wetting the bed because she’s too afraid to pass the creepy portrait hanging over the bathroom door to sightings of figures from nightmare associated with the derelict church and barred lychgate…to Lankin himself pursuing the four children and Aunt Ida through a long-forgotten crypt. We do find out more about who Lankin and the other ghosts are and their connection to the children narrating the story through the children’s research…but I’ll leave that for the readers to discover. Just remember to read this during the bright daylight.

The story is told in first person narrative, shifting primarily between Cora and Roger, with occasional forays into Ida’s perspective, and those of the historical figures. It might help if readers are familiar with the Long Lankin ballad, and American readers with English1 history of the past four hundred years, but not obligatory.

Steeleye Span’s version of the ballad, reasonably accurate.
Things I’ve learned from British folksongs, for those of us who can stand a joke.

1Hush now. That’s where the story takes place.

temporarily on hiatus

My apologies: I should have put this post up a month ago. I’ve had to put the readers advisory blog on temporary hiatus, due to (drumrolls) editing work taking up not just the time I have online, but also the time and interest I might have to spend on reading anything review-worthy.

If time permits, and editing being the erratic employment it is, I expect that yes: I will pick this up again quite soon. But no promises. Sorry.

I’m open to suggestions as to what books I might post about here; I’ll see what I can do, but please keep in mind that my main criterion is “I have to be able to finish it, and I have to be able to say something at least moderately nice about the book.” No complete hatchet jobs. (Anyone who’s been assiduously following the blog since day one can stop laughing now. I did try to find something nice about all the books. Honest.)

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

A murder mystery told from the perspective of the murderer, a historical melodrama that only touches on the history it passes, a horror story which follows the horrifying agent. What to call this? A bit of each.

Grenouille is born in the fish market of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, with a uniquely detailed sense of smell…but no odor of his own. Raised an orphan, little is done for the child other than ensure he ingest enough to keep body and soul together; even as a child, there is something about Grenouille that causes both adults and other children to recoil from this gargoyle-like creature. Although he was only a child when he began to realize that his gift of smell was highly unusual, it is not until he has been apprenticed to a tanner for some years that he realizes that there is a profession which requires just such a keen sense of smell: perfumer. Now a young man, he presents himself to one of the premier perfumers in Paris at the time, M. Baldacci, and despite having no letters or presentation skills, earns himself a place with the man by creating, in mere moments, an exact duplicate of Amor et Psyche, the best-selling perfume of Baldacci’s chief competitor, Pelissier.

Through this and subsequent positions, not to mention a seven-year retreat to a cave in the Auvergne, Grenouille is working toward his ultimate goals: a human scent for himself, so that he may blend in with the humanity around him, but perhaps more importantly, the ultimate scent of love, derived from certain beautiful girl children, caught on the cusp of transformation into young women. The method by which he must extract the essences of Young Woman, unfortunately, proves final for the subjects in the short term, andequally terminal for Grenouille himself in the long run, …and for the people with whom Grenouille becomes engaged during his life. There are two trails of death which follow him: the one he causes in the course of collecting the various notes which will make up his Ultimate Scent of Love, and the subsidiary supports in his life…he does not cause the deaths of people with whom he has become close, but the majority of them die of apparently natural causes, unconnected with Grenouille himself. None of this touches Grenouille, any more than cutting a rose or a sprig of lavender would an ordinary human. And that’s what makes the book so creepy, so engaging.

It’s a creepy fairy tale of the life of a serial killer; Grenouille is not so much amoral, in the sense of deliberately choosing what he suspects is an evil path, but being so uncomprehending of human society that he cannot understand why the ‘scent normal’ majority are so upset about how he collects the components of his ‘Eau de Femininity’. The descriptions of what he’s smelling, and the skills and techniques of the perfumer’s art, are beautifully detailed enough that I was drawn in. Not a book for the squeamish, however. No, really. If the Donner Party’s nightmare upsets you…do NOT read Perfume

What to read next? Oo. If it’s the period language, try Edgar Allan Poe, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Poe’s got the overheated language that sucks you in and repels at the same time, although Suskind is a modern author. Incidentally, there has been a movie made of Perfume; while it’s an interesting movie—it’s hard to pan a movie which includes (please don’t laugh) Dustin Hoffman playing Baldacci and Alan Rickman playing a French nobleman—as is the way of the film industry, it strips out all the ornate language of scent which Suskind includes in the book.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

What’s it like to be raised by a serial killer…and how much do you really trust the nature versus nurture debate?

Jasper ‘Jazz’ Lyga is struggling with issues that put most teens’ trials into a league with skipping through a daisy field. First, he’s covering up the fact that his grandmother was already slipping into dementia when she was assigned to be his caregiver four years ago, and she’s been deteriorating ever since. Second, his mother is dead and his father imprisoned…and third, his father raised him for almost ten years.

His father, the serial killer. Which brings us to the last worry: will Jazz be able to break that early molding, or will he merely crack and become just like his father? To compound all those worries, concerns, problems and issues, there’s a copycat serial killer, working in his father’s style, in the small town of Lobo’s Nod in which he’s now living. Not surprisingly, the police consider Jazz to be Suspect #1. Well, wouldn’t you?

He and his hemophiliac friend, Howie, work together to research the identity of the serial killer, in parallel with the police; the boys in blue, while individually grateful for the insight Jazz can give as the child of a(nother) serial killer, are as an institution resistant to accepting help from someone who himself is automatically a suspect…even by Jazz himself.

While as a mystery this isn’t brilliant—I’m terrible at guessing whodunit in such books and even here I’d narrowed it down to a smaller number of suspects than those listed by Jazz and/or the police—as a YA novel describing the thought process of a serial killer, and of the angst of a teenaged child of same, wonderful.

How do serial killers do it, again and again and again and again, without drawing suspicion on themselves? Intelligence, quite possibly off the charts, check. Charm to put a politician or a televangelist to shame, check. The ability to understand others’ psychology and therefore manipulate them, check….and Jazz has all three in equal amounts to his father’s abilities. As the first of a trilogy, this book doesn’t end with a neatly tied-up ending—the serial killer caught, Jazz vindicated, his father back in jail—but rather with a huge hook for the subsequent books. Under the circumstances, I’ll forgive Lyga, however. The first book is worth the cliffhanger. I’ll definitely be looking up the sequels.

This is a police procedural-style mystery, and one of the few books to which I’ll add something of a parental advisory: given the nature of the crime being investigated, not to mention the upbringing of the protagonist, there is necessarily a considerable amount of detail in regards the nature of what constitutes a serial killer. This might therefore be better for more mature teens. On the plus side, this is the reason I’d suggest the book to those not put off by such things: I think Lyga pegs the mental workings of someone raised in this manner just right. On the minus, well, gee: serial killers’ methodology and psychology can be icky! (no surprises there!)

As a librarian, I’m often torn in regards warning parents about books. On the one hand, I think that parents do have the right to determine what their children read and therefore the concomitant responsibility to not only be aware of what their children are reading but more specifically the responsibility to read what their children are reading before the kids do. On the other hand…kids are tougher than parents might realize, and often may find a traumatic issue easier to deal with when they see it in a work of fiction rather than meeting it in real life.

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne

Poor Barnaby! Not just because he’s born with the tendency1 to float up and away, free of Earth’s gravity. Not because this means he must struggle to stay down on the planet’s surface as the normally weighted people do, but rather because his parents find it deeply humiliating to have a child who cannot keep his feet on the ground. (His siblings don’t have a problem with it.) As his parents are relentlessly normal, Barnaby spends his infancy and toddlerhood kept strictly at home; it is not until he reaches Australia’s mandatory minimum school age that his parents reluctantly allow him to mingle with non-immediate family members, and even then, they’re careful to select a school which none of their acquaintances’ children attend, one which can control the children attending…a reform school in short.

One day his mother can take no more embarrassment over the “public censure” she’s sure her son’s “disability” is causing the family; she takes poor Barnaby out for a walk and when he isn’t looking, slits open the backpack full of sand he’s wearing in order to keep him grounded. Inevitably, poor Barnaby drifts away as the sand drains out of his pack…and here we begin the more than slightly “Perils of Pauline” portion of Barnaby’s life.

As he rises this first time, he fortuitously bumps his head on the basket of a pair of adventuresses who ran off together to a Brazilian coffee plantation after their families declared them to be ‘abnormal’; they loved coffee and they loved each other, but periodically they set off in their hot air balloon for a bit of a vacation, and it is during one of these jaunts that they meet Barnaby. They take him to their plantation for a week, then put him on the train to Rio de Janeiro, where he is to fly back to Sydney and his family.

Unfortunately, he forgets to set his alarm, oversleeps, and wakes up in New York, at the end of the line. Here, someone steals his weights and he floats off into the sky…only to bump (literally) into the cage of someone washing the windows of the Chrysler Building. This kind young man dresses Barnaby’s bruised forehead in his own apartment then sends him off to the airport…but forgets to give him cab fare in addition to arranging the flight. Pushed out of the cab by the irate driver upon discovering that his “fare” hasn’t the necessary fare, Barnaby drifts upward and away, only to be rescued at the tip of a whip of a ringmaster looking to expand his freak show.

And so on. Eventually he does make it home, to his family in Sydney, only to realize that he would much prefer to be floating away into the sky to take his chances with the people he meets there.

It’s an interesting tale of accepting yourself and the difference between us all, of finding your “family” in the sense of the people who will love and support you rather than your biological family. As for the writing style, at various points the text reminded me of Roald Dahl, in the horridness of the adults, and at others, of Lemony Snicket, in the more than slightly purple prose and improbable situations. (Floating off into space, only to bump your head on the cage of a window washer?) As I suspect with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, many readers will have issues with this book, for a variety of reasons. For starters, Barnaby sounds both younger and older than his eight years, though in this case, his isolation from the outside world would plausibly result in his naivete. The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket may be a little easier to accept because it’s so clearly a fantasy parable while The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a real setting.

1I hesitate to say “ability” as he has no control over it