Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Vanishing Act (review)

The Vanishing Act

Near the beginning of Mette Jakobsen’s debut novel “The Vanishing Act” ( W.W. Norton, 2012), Minou, the story’s 12 year old narrator tells the reader “You might not believe my story. You might read it as a fairytale, a fable straight out of my imagination.”
            Despite what Minou says, this quiet, slim novel is very much a fable, a tale of love, loss, and aching loneliness. Minou, her father; a kind, mad Priest; a magician named Boxman; and a dog called No Name live on an island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.” One year earlier, her mother walked out into the cold morning with her umbrella and a turtle and disappeared from their lives. While everyone else on the island has given up hope of finding Minou’s mother, the girl is convinced that she is alive, off on an exciting adventure from which she will soon return.
            Jakobsen throws the reader into Minou’s world with the novel’s opening sentence: “It was snowing the morning I found the dead boy.”
Minou, and her father carry the frozen boy to their house, laying the body out on the mother’s empty bed for three days until the delivery boat could come to pick him up. The boy, Minou is sure, holds the secret to her mother’s disappearance, and she confides in him, a silent confessor.
So, too, does her father, a philosopher who believes that he is a descendent of Descartes. Logic and reason, in his mind, is the key to finding the ultimate truth—a belief that Minou has adopted and fervently hopes will help her untangle the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance. In flashbacks, we learn more about her mother, an artist who arrived on the island with just one red suitcase filled with “five dresses, eight jars of paint, two brushes, and a white enamel clock that didn’t work,” as well as a peacock nestled in a golden bowl. Both Minou’s mother and father were scarred by a war that, although unnamed, seems very much like World War II.  
The other characters in this sparse narrative are equally enigmatic. There is Priest, who performs Tai-Chi like exercises every morning, bakes pretzels that no one wants to eat, and sends out origami animals during his sermons to Minou and No Name.  The Boxman, a retired magician, now makes the boxes the magicians use when sawing women in half. All are a part of the story of the disappearance of Minou’s mother.
Jakobsen’s writing is lovely and captivating. After reading this book, you may find yourself revisiting Minou on her island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.”

This review originally published in the Sunday, October 21 edition of The News-Gazette.


Beautiful Creatures (review)

Beautiful Creatures (Caster Chronicles, #1)Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Southern Gothic Fantasy Hits the Big Screen

I always prefer to read the book before seeing the movie. I think it’s more fun to imagine what the characters look like before some casting directors do it for me. If the filmmakers do a good job of bringing the book to the big screen, it adds to the fun. Harry Potter, anyone?
So when I saw that the movie “Beautiful Creatures,” based on the book of the same name (Little, Brown and Co., 2009) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, was coming out this year just in time for Valentine’s Day, I knew I had to read the book first.
All I can say is this: if the movie lives up to the book, I’m going to enjoy it.
Sixteen-year-old Ethan Wate lives in the small southern town of Gatlin, South Carolina, where nothing ever seems to change and old folks still refer to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.” The biggest event in town is the yearly Civil War reenactment that everyone—save Ethan and his family—seems to relish.
Nothing changes, that is, until Lena Duchannes comes to town. She is, literally, the girl of his dreams. For months, he had dreamed of a beautiful girl he had never met. She is falling, and he must save her. When Ethan meets the mysterious Lena on their first day of sophomore year, he knows it’s her. It is also clear that she is no ordinary teenager. She moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation with her uncle Macon Ravenwood, the town recluse.
Ethan falls for this strange new girl who is unlike any of the perky, blonde, fake-tanned cheerleader types who dominate the school’s social scene. She’s dark-haired, pale, wears all the wrong kind of clothes, and drives a hearse to school. Yes!
As Ethan quickly discovers, Lena’s differences go way, way beyond her looks. She is a Caster, which is something like a witch. Although, as Lena points out, “That’s such as stupid word, really. It’s like saying jocks. Or geeks. It’s just a dumb stereotype.” Ethan and Lena begin to fall for each other, even as they learn that their pasts are inextricably bound together. And Lena is struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations.
Authors Garcia and Stohl do a terrific job of describing the atmosphere, culture, and secrets of a small southern town, creating a gripping ending that will have you wishing for more. Wish granted: there are of course sequels—not to mention the movie!

Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 17 books. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review originally published in the Sunday, January 13 edition of The News-Gazette.

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