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.

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 Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford

A young and talented though not yet entirely established painter, Piambo, is approached on the street by a blind man, who relays the message from his employer: Paint me, but without ever seeing me. You may be in my presence only if on the other side of a screen, and you may not see images of me, ask me to describe myself or ask anyone who has seen me to do the same. All you will have upon which to base your sketches is what I tell you about myself.

Intriguing concept, most definitely. Piambo takes on the commission, though it proves as difficult as anyone with a grain of knowledge of how painting and painters work could imagine. The sittings last for several weeks, an hour at a time, while Piambo sits on one side of an opaque screen and Mrs. Charbuque on the other. The stories grow more enthralling, yet Piambo is no closer to envisioning his subject despite the snowstorm of words she throws to him. In the end, desperate for more concrete visuals, he searches the community for information on this mysterious woman and at last her own house. It is here that he finds a stack of paintings, done by other artists, of Mrs. Charbuque: all different, and all poles apart from what he himself is attempting to do.

To heighten the drama, there is a strange epidemic spreading among the women of New York; periodically, one will be found swooning with her eyes dissolved into rivulets of blood. To compound Piambo’s own struggles, he is pursued by the jealous husband of his subject, as mysteriously unseen as his wife; Charbuque speaks from shadows in the depths of alleys, from behind while clasping Piambo in a chokehold to the neck. The message is always the same: leave my wife alone.

…and yes, there’s a plot twist, so I’ll stop here.

The book’s an interesting take on the art and technique of painting, or rather of making a living at one’s painting while alive. The process of creating a portrait such as the one in the title, the tightrope balancing of following ones’ muse and remaining true to one’s own artistic vision with that of, bluntly, making a living. Holbein wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if he’d painted Henry and Anne of Cleves exactly as they were, and Piambo’s in the same fix.

I’d call this Gothic Lite; while modern authors such as Dan Simmons ‘improve’ on the original in the sense of including a greater number of more lavishly supernatural details, Ford has stripped down the genre to its barer, and therefore more straightforward, underlying structure. Less circumlocutions. Fewer clauses, both subordinate and independent. And decidedly less purple; I’d call this no more than palest lavender. Recommended for people who like historical fiction, New York and the complexities of the Victorian Era but without the entangled fevered prose so popular at the time.

Now, back to Melmoth the Wanderer and Pride and Prejudice for me…and not least The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (sorry, did I say that last out loud? no plot spoilers here, please move along.)

The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson

The world’s begun to spin more slowly on its axis. How do you react? Perhaps equally importantly, how do animals and plants respond? How does society change? This is the basic precept of The Age of Miracles.

As the Earth’s rotation slows1, the planet’s ecology is affected: birds cannot fly, whales beach themselves as they try to migrate, plants weaken and die as the light-dark diurnal cycle lengthens. Human society splits into two groups, the clock-timers, the more conventional group which continues to use the 24-hour cycle despite it’s increasing irrelevance to what is conventionally called “a day”, and the day-timers, who attempt to follow the light-dark cycle as humans have always done, sleeping when it’s dark and waking when it’s light. As the Earth’s revolution continues to slow, not surprisingly the plants begin to weaken and die as they’re unable to adjust to the changing light cycle, and the effect ripples up the food chain. Humans begin to hoard canned food, vitamin pills and batteries; demand for sleep masks and blackout curtains surges past factories’ capacity. Eventually, the global climate itself begins to alter; snow in San Diego, heatstroke in the frigid polar regions and so on.

I’d strongly suggest that readers view this as a coming-of-age story rather than an example of post-apocalypse dystopian science fiction; the science in the book struck me as weak, and/or underdeveloped, starting with a lack of explanation for the triggering event, the slowing of the Earth’s rotation, not to mention much about why this altering rotation affects gravitation—something about centrifugal force counteracting it? It’s entirely possible to include too much scientific detail, especially if you’re aiming for a mainstream chicklit audience, but a smidge more information would have been nice. How did the human race manage to survive for the intervening decade between the initial slowing and the framing conclusion if the plants die off and as a result, the animals: what did the people eat?

It doesn’t help my impression of the book that it’s one of the best examples I’ve seen in years of the phrase, “the devil is in the detail”> I won’t bore readers of my blog with a list of such details, except to note that at one point Julia refers to her two Siamese cats as being of different breeds. Um, no. “Siamese” is a breed. In fairness, there are sub-types within the Siamese breed, and there are other similar breeds, such as the Himalayan, Burmese, or Tonkinese. But I’d expect better from someone who’d herself been a book editor.

Some of the techniques Thompson uses are ones I regard as flaws; for example, she tells us us what’s happening rather than showing us how the plants are dying, the animals unable to cope. (and why just birds and whales? I know the story’s set in a built-up suburb in southern California on the beach, but surely there would be bats and snakes and raccoons and insects and mice?) While I understand that an eleven or twelve-year-old girl might not be able to understand or explain what’s going on, based on her own knowledge of biology, astronomy and geology…the twelve-year-old Julia isn’t the true narrator. The real narrator is the twenty-three-year-old Julia, looking back at events over the perspective of an intervening decade.

I’d argue, however, that the book’s greater strength and interest lies in the author’s choosing to concentrate on the perspective of one tween girl—Julia turns twelve in the book, old enough to begin taking an interest in the adult world around her but young enough to retain some of the innocence and ignorance of childhood—and therefore not quite understanding what she sees. It’s a world of training-bra envy and unreciprocated crushes, finding your place in the world, developing your own sense of self and beginning to separate from your parents.

The foreshadowing is more than slightly heavy-handed. Yes, I know the story’s actually being told by Julia at twenty-three rather than the child she was at the time, and so therefore, the narrator knows ‘now’ things she couldn’t have guessed at the time the main narrative transpires. I wish Thompson had gone a little easier on the portentous evocations of impending doom, as there are more than a few scenes with all the delicacy of an avalanche and all the lightness of a plate of gnocchi, and concentrated instead on a more delicate suggestion of hints. As it stands, all that foreshadowing took away from the suspense of the main narrative; it’s obvious that Julia does survive, given all the hints she drops, and that weakens any fear I might have had at her eventual fate.

Show me, don’t tell me, in other words.

That said, in fairness, there clearly are a number of people who genuinely did like this book and as a librarian I need to be evenhanded with anyone interested in reading. If you liked this, what to read next? If you liked the science fiction/apocalypse aspects of it, try Across the Universe. Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is another possibility for people who liked the “post-apocalypse” aspects but want less science than in The Age of Miracles. I think a closer match might be The Lovely Bones.

The New York Times
Washington Post
Huffington Post

1the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is unaffected, thankfully

The Terror by Dan Simmons

Arctic and Antarctic exploration isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with all our modern equipment, from motor oil designed to continue lubrication in below-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures to nutritionally complete, long-lasting foodstuffs. However, at least those modern explorers and scientists know that, should they be lost in the frozen wastelands of the Polar Regions, their remains will be located and returned to surviving (and mourning!) family members. This was not always so in the Golden Age of Exploration…and that’s at the heart of Dan Simmons’ The Terror.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin departed England in search of the Northwest Passage, a theory propounded by geographers and scientists of the day to the effect that there was a navigable passage up and over the top of what is now Canada1, and a geographic phenomenon most earnestly sought by the economic forces of the day for a variety of reasons2. No one from this expedition was ever seen again in their homeland. Their last confirmed position was near Beechy Island, though they almost certainly made it to King William’s (Is)Land.

In theory, Franklin and his backers did everything right. The commander of the expedition and the two men captaining the ships had considerable years of experience in polar exploration between them, not to mention maritime skills gained through a lifetime. The ships used, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had been taken down to the Antarctic by James Ross a few years previously, and had in the interim been reinforced with iron sheathing and cross-grained wood planking to resist crushing in the pack ice, outfitted with steam engines and rudders that could be retracted into iron-sheathed protective wells to avoid being themselves being crushed in the shifting ice. The expedition brought three years’ worth of canned, dried and salted provisions for what was intended to be no more than a two year long expedition, not to mention each ship had a library of over 1,000 volumes with which it was presumed the crew could amuse themselves during the inevitable periods of being trapped in the ice.

Only of course it didn’t work out, and we’ll never be quite sure why. There are a few plausible real-world issues that contributed to the loss of both ships and all the men. All the problems that plagued previous expeditions worried at the heels of this one: inadequately equipped for a hostile climate, inadequate clothing, inadequate nutrition, inadequate transport, and so on. In this particular expedition’s case, however, their food and water supplies were almost certainly (and quite literally) stacked against them; not only were the supplies of drinking water piped through lead conduits, the canned food had been prepared in haste by a supplier himself inadequately prepared to provide such a large order, and the modern guess is that as a result, the cans were not only poorly sealed (with lead welding, yet), they were also contaminated with silent botulism.

Dan Simmons has put forth a theory of his own: a supernatural creature, inexplicable and unstoppable, that is prowling around the ships in the dark. All the crews of the two ships know is that it is vengeful and is somehow related to the mutely tongueless Inuit woman they found on the ice, with a similarly voiceless older Inuit man. As that second winter, the first off King William Sound, progresses, the creature encroaches further, the ice presses closer and the darkness is increasingly oppressive….and I’ll stop there. Gotta leave some suspense for anyone who hasn’t read this book but intends to.

The short version of my take on the novel is that Simmons could have left out the supernatural/religious element entirely, and it wouldn’t have adversely or even appreciably affected the novel3. Aren’t prowling polar bears enough? I don’t mind supernatural elements inserted into what would be otherwise a prosaically mundane work, if it’s done well and is made a critical component of the new work; I loved Simmons’ Drood. Even the suggestion that some of the crew members might have joined up with the local Inuit is not entirely implausible. It wouldn’t take much of a leap for the cleverer and more open-minded crew members to realize “Hey, if we make nice with this group of people that is not only surviving but thriving where we are dying, maybe we too will survive?”

That said, I’d still heartily recommend the novel to anyone interested in reading a well-written description of what it might have been like on that doomed expedition. Just skip the bits about the phantom whatever-it-is. Having read non-fiction about the Arctic (and Antarctic) exploration over the years, not least Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys and Ninety Degrees North, Simmons did get the historical part right, so far as I can tell. Even today, we have no real idea what precisely happened to Franklin’s expedition, though I believe modern scientists have found some traces of the Erebus and the Terror, but now as then, the basic assumption is “missing, presumed dead”.

1In fairness, there is a sea route twiddling through the islands scattered north of continental Canada. In the main, however, it is not navigable by anything larger than an umiak for more than about thirty seconds during a heat wave in August.
2While there was a certain element of the “Because it’s there.” drive that motivated all those European expeditions up Everest, seeking a trade route more convenient that slogging all the way down around Tierra del Fuego served as a more pragmatic reason. Of course, the Panama and Suez canals have obviated much of that…
3It’s not Simmons’ fault that I can’t help wondering why the British Navy kept giving their ships names like Erebus, Hecla, Fury and Terror. You’re going to the polar regions for Pete’s sake. Wouldn’t names like Tranquility or Tahiti been more cheering?