Under the Radar: Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover & The Catalogue of the Universe

8mahySo I first discovered the wonders of Margaret Mahy back in April, and immediately fell in love and began working my way through her books. There are a lot of them, and I actually find it’s best not to try reading them in close succession, so I still have a ways to go.

I did want to post though, about two of her early books that I recommend to any and everyone who has any vague interest in prose strange enough to take your head off and put it back on again differently oriented or in, well, excellent YA novels. I know several people read The Changeover after I briefly posted about it earlier this year (which was extremely happy-making), and I hope anyone who wasn’t convinced will be after this post, and will add The Catalogue of the Universe and some other Mahy’s to their queue too. I also know that Mahy is a huge star in other parts of the world–as she should be!–but she seems way underknown here, which is unfortunate. And this connects up with yesterday’s post about Elizabeth Knox; both these authors are from New Zealand, and I believe the dedication in Knox’s second book is to Mahy herself (I’m hoping to ask her about whether I’m right in an interview later this year).

One of the thing that absolutely floors me about Mahy’s work is the way in which she never makes the usual or easy decision, but always manages to make the one that best supports the entire book and what she’s trying to do. Okay, could I make that sound any less interesting? In reality, it’s fascinating.

In The Changeover, for instance, Mahy demonstrates a particular fascination for the process ofChangeover2_2 change–the in-between stage when a character is caught between the old thing and the next thing they will become. All the major characters in the novel possess this interstitial quality in some key way. Protagonist Laura Chant seems to be in transition from the novel’s opening, when she hears a voice warn her vaguely that "It’s going to happen." Whatever "it" is, Laura is now suspended, waiting for its arrival. Soon, that promised change materializes in the guise of a mysterious shopkeeper, Carmody Braque, a revenant who marks her younger brother Jacko’s hand in order to drain away his life force. Jacko is trapped between life and death for the rest of the novel, ebbing ever closer to losing his identity. Laura herself is a "sensitive," accounting for the voice, and so inhabits a space apart from those around her and yet as one of them. She knows she must go to classmate Sorenson "Sorry" Carlisle for help, because she can tell he is a witch. He lives in the big old house with three witches (like him, but older, wiser), who reveal that Sorry is not exactly settled himself–he is a rare male witch, and they worry that in the process of becoming so, he has lost his humanity. The cast of major players is rounded out by Laura’s single mother and a fragile but promising new love interest; their relationship and whether it will last through the book becomes a mystery.

I mention all these people, because one of the other things Mahy’s a master at is capturing unique family dynamics. The adults in these book are adults, with their own lives and concerns and imperfections. They have a bearing on the story, but without taking it away from the younger protagonists. It seems to me this is a much more accurate–and interesting–reflection of reality than the "parents and adults always off stage" that much YA traffics in.

Changeover1These characters are all peculiarly situated to bring on the transition of the title, the process through which Laura will become a witch in the course of her dealings with the Carlisles, trying to save her brother Jacko and her mother’s happiness. The "changeover" itself takes only a chapter, and comes close to the end of the book. Much more time is spent examining the oddness of what is happening to Jacko and Laura’s position and options. She is a character on the cusp of many things. Her burgeoning sexuality and attraction to Sorry is one, and in many ways her "changeover" is symbolized by her romantic embrace of the older Sorry, her transition to womanhood in the traditional sense. 

Mahy enforces this emphasis on transition and transformation through the very way she paces sentences, chapters, and paragraphs on the page. The rush of story is heady and odd. It is precisely the speeding up and slowing down of action, the focus on the in-between scenes that turn into focal points after all, that makes the entire novel so strange and unsettling. By using these unusual transition points, our experience of the story is controlled by Mahy in such a way that we feel the discomfort the characters feel, trapped in it themselves. We are not free to have a lazy experience. We are caught between one thing and another and will not stop until fixed.

She performs similar micro and macro alchemy in The Catalogue of the Universe to an entirely differentCatalogue end. Catalogue isn’t a fantasy novel at all, but it sure as hell feels like one. It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, and possibly the most pleasantly strange. Like The Changeover, in many ways Catalogue could be pigeonholed as a romance. It’s the story of an unlikely pair of lovers, who start the book as friends(I don’t think I’m giving anything away here)–the beautiful and witty Angela May and the brilliant but nerdy Tycho Potter.

Mahy dizzingly plays within scenes, showing us the swirl of activity in Tycho’s household and the oddness in Angela’s. Here’s a bit from the opening that will show what I mean (Mahy is a master of the long, luxurious paragraph as well), where Angela has gotten up at night and is walking around with her eyes closed. She hears a noise and decides to check it out:

As she stood, simply feeling grateful, she heard for the third time, beyond all doubt, a sound outside, a sound so soft that it would have been possible to think it out of existence again, except that this time she really knew she had heard it, a sound as gentle as a hand brushing down a velvet curtain. It made her curious but it did not alarm her, for she was used to many different sounds in the night, living as she did up above the city, in a wild place close under the sky. She went to her window and looked out, and there in the bright moonlight she saw her mother Dido in the centre of the square of grass half-contained in the right angle made by their odd home (a home that had never quite got as far as being a proper house). It took a moment to realize what Dido was doing, but that rhythmic and dreamy sway was familiar–Dido was scything the grass by moonlight. Angela could see the entranced, semi-circular swing of her shoulders, heard the whisper of the keen steel and the sigh of long grass bowing down before her. Everything around her was drenched in a light so clear and so intense it seemed as if it must have more substance than ordinary light. It was the very light of visions and prophecies.

Okay, I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I encountered a scene so strange at the beginning of a novel which wasn’t strangeness for strangeness’ sake. Catalogue’s plot follows Angela as she confronts the man she has discovered is her father, and then realizes her true feelings for Tycho (and her mother). It is about the immensity of the universe and finding a place in it anyway.

Catalogue2Mahy dips in and out of various points of view (including the cat’s head for a moment at one point, but never those of the adults) in a way that supports the romance of two young people swept up in the expansiveness of the universe. The feeling that the narrator can burrow down to the cat’s level, or hover out at the length of a star, is appropriate to the romantic nature of the story. The book itself is named for a book within the text. And oh, the conversations of Angela and Tycho, about anything and everything, theory and postulation that captures the very essence of what it means to be a certain kind of slightly obsessed, bright teenager. This is a story about philosophy, astronomy, and love, and not one to be missed.

These two novels were both published in the mid- to late-1980s. The thing that floors me is that while, yes, there are some things that feel slightly dated in them here and there, for the most part they feel more modern than much of the traditionally structured fiction I see now. Regardless, they hold up beautifully. So I could basically have skipped all this and gotten to the point: Margaret Mahy is a genius. Read these books.

And today’s other Radar recommendations are (courtesy of Colleen):Radar

A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy: Friends for Life and Life Without Friends both by Ellen Emerson White
Big A, little a
: A interview with Helen Dunmore
Jen Robinson’s Book Page: The Treasures of Weatherby by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Bildungsroman: Swollen by Melissa Lion
Finding Wonderland: Lucy the Giant by Sherry L. Smith
Miss Erin: A discussion of Erec Rex: The Dragon’s Eye and an interview with author Kaza Kingsley
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast: An interview with Nancy Crocker, author of Billie Standish Was Here
Fuse Number 8
: The Noisy Counting Book by Susan Schade (ed. note: I really loved The Travels of Thelonious too!)
Chasing Ray: Juniper, Genetian and Rosemary by Pamela Dean
lectitans: Who Pppplugged Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf
Writing and Ruminating: Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown
Semicolon: Overlooked Christian fiction

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Under the Radar: Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter Duet

ElizabethknoxElizabeth Knox is one of those writers who should be running the radar, if there were any justice in the world. Pointing here and there, singling out interesting writers that we’d then all read. At least, I’d trust her to based on her books.

I first discovered Knox’s work the way I’ve found a not-insubstantial number of my favorite authors–Kelly Link gave me a copy of one of her books. I believe it was Black Oxen, but it could have been Billie’s Kiss. Or maybe The Vintner’s Luck. Either way, I read all three in short order, and began keeping an eye out for others. When Daylight came out, I read it on an airplane on the way to San Francisco, unconsciously gripping it so tightly that my hands were sore that night. I was hooked. And who wouldn’t be? These are deeply unconventional novels–love between a man and an angel, vampires haunting Italian caves, a time traveling search for a non-human father–not one like the other, but always with that same assured, lush voice behind them.

So when I heard that Knox had written a YA "duet" (as opposed to the usual trilogy), I was excited, but also worried. Would this writer have pinched in her oddness to write for younger readers? It happens so often: an interesting novelist for adults writes a simplistic, heavy-handed book for children or teenagers, not understanding that if anything the borders are open even wider in this field than in the one they’ve been publishing in. I shouldn’t have worried.

The two books–Dreamhunter (or The Rainbow Opera in the UK) and Dreamquake–that comprise theDreamhunter1 Dreamhunter Duet are Knox’s masterpiece to date. This is a majestic and sweeping work: a fantasy classic that should be around for a long time to come. Both novels received excellent reviews when they came out, in 2006 and this year respectively, and the first landed on several lists here in the U.S.(scroll and click) so far. Yet I don’t hear people talking about them. I certainly don’t encounter a lot of people who are pretty well-read in terms of recent fantasy who’ve read them. And that’s why I’m posting about them today, in the hope of changing that.

Set in Southland, an Edwardian-era version of New Zealand, the books chronicle events surrounding the intersection between the current society and a geographic anomaly known as "the Place" that only "dreamhunters" can visit. Teenage Laura Hame’s father Tziga discovered the Place twenty years earlier, pioneering the art of retrieving dreams and performing them for huge sleeping audiences. This has now become big business. Like anything that becomes the focus of an economy, however, we quickly figure out that dreams are also being put to some mysterious, darker purpose. Laura’s father may be a casualty of that sinister effort. When Tziga disappears, she must try to find him, notably with the help of a sand golem called Nown she creates in the dreamland. Laura and a host of other characters spend the course of both novels uncovering secret after secret, until finally the secret of the Place itself is revealed. Along the way, we experience the story through the eyes of not only Tziga and Laura, but her cousin Rose and her family, Laura’s romantic interest dreamhunter Sandy Mason, various rangers, Nown, and corrupt bureaucrat Cass Doran, to name just a few.

Dreamhunter2Knox could have chosen to tell the story as a pure family saga. But while the two families central to the story are important, they alone don’t make up the story. She could also have chosen to tell it through a tight lens of Laura’s point of view, making it a more personal tale of a girl coming to grips with the loss of her parents and with her own destiny. Or what if she told it from Tziga’s point of view, chronicling the first and most troubled dreamhunter’s journey? Any of these more conventional decisions would have resulted in a far less rich world and less satisfying story. Because of this choice, the balance of Southland becomes the balance of the world.  We are keenly aware of how many places there are where that balance could be lost forever. These novels are a master class in the successful use of omniscient point of view to widen the borders of a story.

That rich oddness Knox does so well is present–where else are you going to find sexual tension with a sand golem?–but the novel is very grounded as well. The fantasy world of the Place is as real–as dirty and full of politics and secrets–as the "real" world. I don’t want to spoil the ending so I won’t go into detail, but Knox bravely draws her story to a grand finish in a way so surprising I can’t immediately think of another fantasy where something similar happens. I hope you’ll do me the favor of reading these books. They are fabulous.

And today’s other Radar stops are:Radar

A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy: The President’s Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White
Big A, little a: The Tide Knot by Helen Dunmore
Jen Robinson’s Book Page: The Zilpha Keatley Snyder Green Sky trilogy
Bildungsroman: Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn: A Discussion Part 1
Chasing Ray: Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn: A Discussion Part 2
lectitans: Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn: A Discussion Part 3
Finding Wonderland: The House on Hound Hill by Maggie Prince
Miss Erin: The Reb & Redcoats and Enemy Brothers, both by Constance Savery
Bookshelves of Doom: Harry Sue by Sue Stauffacher
Interactive Reader: Shake Down the Stars by Frances Donnelly
Chicken Spaghetti: Pooja Makhijani guest blogs with Romina’s Rangoli
Writing & Ruminating: Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carole Weatherford

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And Today’s Radar Links

And Today’s Radar Links Read More »

Under the Radar Madness Kicks Off

RadarNot here, but elsewhere! (Here later in the week.)

I know you don’t have enough books to read, so do go see all the Radar Recommendations for today:

Finding Wonderland on The Curved Saber: The Adventure of Khlit the Cossack by Harold Lamb

Bildungsroman: Christopher Golden’s Body of Evidence series

Interactive Reader has Christopher Golden’s Body of Evidence series too

Not Your Mother’s Bookclub
: An interview with Robert Sharenow, author of My Mother the Cheerleader

lectitans: The Angel of the Opera: Sherlock Meets the Phantom of the Opera by Sam Siciliano

Bookshelves of Doom: The God Beneathe the Sea, Black JackJack Holburn all by Leon Garfield

Writing and Ruminating: An interview with Tony Mitton and a review of his book Plum

The YA YA YAs are all about  I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson

Chicken Spaghetti: The Illustrator’s Notebook by Mohieddin Ellabad

SemiColon: Picture books, including Russell Hoban’s Nothing To Do

Colleen‘s all about Dorothy of Oz at Chasing Ray

(And thanks to Coll for the links!)

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One Shot World Tour Post: The Red Shoe


When Colleen first got the idea for the One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite, I immediately wanted to search out a lesser known Aussie writer to talk about. Only I wanted someone so lesser known I’d never heard of them. So, of course, I e-mailed Justine. She got back to me with a great list, but I’d been searching the wonderful Inside a Dog archives too, and one of the names she mentioned had already clicked with me there: Ursula Dubosarsky. The local library only had one of her books, The Red Shoe, which had been published in the U.S. this past May. I reserved it, hoping it was as good as it looked.

Reader, it was even better. I always know I’ve found a winner when I start reading aloud to Christopher within the first two pages. This one, I was reading from so much I think he thought it was a Margaret Mahy novel at first. And there are similarities there — particularly in the deft, brilliant use of third-person omniscient narration, but I’m writing a paper on that so I will spare you the writing wonk.

The Red Shoe begins with a Once Upon a Time, older sister Frances being begged by charming, high-spirited young Matilda to read her a story. Frances proceeds to read Hans Christian Andersen’s rather gruesome version of "The Red Shoes." As it gets darker and darker, Matilda can barely stand it, breaking in with: "I don’t like this story," said Matilda definitely. "I don’t want to learn to read if stories are like that." After being read the dubious "happy ending," Dubosarsky finishes the opening segment with these devastatingly perfect, understated paragraphs:

Their mother had some red shoes, with golden buckles and shiny black heels. They made a clicking sound on the pavement, like a tap dancer. Matilda loved those shoes.

"Red shoes," whispered Matilda under the blanket.

And she lay there quite still, listening to the sounds of the morning, but somewhere inside her she thought she might be afraid.

(Aside: This is a really stupid thing to admit, but I have a huge prejudice against big chunks of italicized text in books. And yet, this opening bit is just such a chunk, and there are a few others within the book — they’ve proved to me it can work without being distracting.)

There’s a gorgeous sense of dread, of shadows conjured, in the opening, but there are also moments of intense humor. Set during the 1950s in Sydney, the novel travels between the view from inside each of three sisters — Matilda (the youngest), Frances, and Elizabeth, Dubosarsky perfectly captures the differences that come from being the younger, older, or middle child, and also from being these specific girls. The humor comes naturally from those things. From eldest sister Elizabeth’s nervous breakdown at 15, which brings their father home — briefly — from the merchant navy in WWII to try and deal with it. Or from Matilda’s own skewed view of the world, spying on the strange men who move in next door.

Perfectly conjuring the period, and yet creating a completely accessible story, Dubosarsky contrasts chapters focusing on the family with interstitials from the Sydney newspapers of the time, stories of polio, the H-bomb, and a defecting Russian spy (who happens to under the watch of those strange men next door).

This isn’t a fantasy novel. There is magic in it though, even if it’s not really magic. There’s Matilda’s invisible friend Floreal 22, who came out of a radio show of The Argonauts, and the fairy story at the start, and a general sensibility that readers of smart fantasy will find appealing. But it isn’t a light novel, by any means, despite the humor infused throughout. It explores the weight events of the world can put on families, and the complexities of families themselves. And yet, it comes to a stunningly, legitimately hopeful ending.

Nothing here is heavy-handed. Everything is perfectly balanced. It’s a beautiful, beautiful novel. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Dubosarksy’s work.

See also: Her own explanation of how she learned about the Petrov defection and why she wrote the book.

And here endeth my contributions to the fabulous day of Aussie love. I’ll post the direct links to everything everybody did later on at the end of this post.

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One Shot World Tour Post: Margo Lanagan

06lanaganThis isn’t going to be a long one. Newsflash: Margo Lanagan rocks.

I haven’t gotten to read any of her surely delicious novels yet, but I’m hoping to remedy that soonest (they aren’t available U.S.-side yet). Her short stories though, are a continual delight. New ones as anticipated as much in our house as someone discovering a previously unknown, even-more-delicious form of chocolate. (This would be known not as milk, dark, white, etcetera, but as GOD.) I believe that, predictably enough, "Singing My Sister Down," the first story in Black Juice, was my initial discovery of her work. Chocolate. God. Etcetera. (Although I actually recommend you read the story last, after all the other stories in Black Juice, just to save it for yourself like a secret.)

But if you haven’t read her yet, don’t listen to me. Listen to Jules and Eisha. They had a stellar co-review of Red Spikes, the new collection, yesterday (I meant to read and review it for today as well, but didn’t get my copy in time — boo), and today they have a fabulous interview with her. And, yes, it includes the Pivot at the end. (Yay!) And there’s even a process porn question:

7-Imp:  Since we’re sort of sharing you with Gwenda of Shaken & Stirred for this One Shot World Tour event, we’ll ask a Gwenda-like question: Tell us about your writing process (starting wherever you like: getting the idea, starting to write, under deadline, etc.).

Margo:  Have you got a spare hour or two? I can talk process-porn until the cows come home — and I loved reading about everyone’s work habits in the Summer Blog Blast Tour, so keep asking, Gwenda!

I keep notebooks, where I collect bits of stuff that might be useful, also encouraging quotations. I write first drafts longhand, to avoid aggravating my RSI and becoming keyboard-dependent. This last novel I’ve been writing, I tried to fool myself (because I would otherwise have been too intimidated) that it was just a whole bunch of linked short stories, so I worked on this ‘collection’ awhile before sitting down, admitting it was a novel, and working out which other ‘short stories’ (i.e. chapters) I needed to turn it into a complete novel. Now I’m finishing those off, combing and combing through the word-processorscript, filling up all the white space and adding pages. I can neither compose nor edit on-screen – I need to see the full page I’m working on, and the size of the pile of pages either side of it.

So get yourselves over there and read the rest. And then on to the other stops. (Image from Locus)

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One Shot World Tour Post: How Sassy Changed My Life

HowsassychangedmylifeWhy, yes, as the day goes on I will be getting more relevant to the Aussie theme of the One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite. Thank you for asking.

Anyway, now I’m going to prattle a tiny bit about Sassy and Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer‘s wonderful book How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time. Because it did, in many ways, change my life — it was a lightning bolt that hit the magazine stand at the Convenience Mart up the road in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky, where I grew up. I’d already stumbled onto some indie music and was obsessed with locating subversive books and movies (loved by teen geeks everywhere), but Sassy made not being all that interested in mainstream stuff legitimate and pointed me toward more, more, more.

This is a relevant topic for today, because it all started with Sandra Yates, an Australian feminist and businesswoman. On her site, she has posted a New York Times article that tells a little of the story:

Then in 1984, she was sent to New York for 10 days, to study whether Fairfax should be publishing magazines in the United States.

Two things happened to Ms. Yates on that trip. She fell in love with New York City, and she got the idea for Sassy.

American teen-agers, to her mind, needed a magazine like Dolly, one that would discuss issues like sex, fashion or suicide without cloaking him in euphemisms, one that would take a tone, in her words, of "hey guys, we’re in this together."

"The teen magazines here," she said, "were like Good Housekeeping for teen-agers, speaking with parental voices and looking like they were suspended in aspic."

At its launch, Sassy had a staff that was basically half-American, half-Australian, and under the helm of the Yates-annointed Jane Pratt. How Sassy Changed My Life tells the story of the magazine from start to finish, delving deeply into the personalities of the staffers — particularly the ones with the magazine early on, during its glory days. It perfectly captures the energy that was peculiar to Sassy, the sense that it was more than a magazine right from the get-go. For girls like me, out in the wasteland, it was a way of connecting to the larger culture, to people with similar interests — sound anything like, oh, I don’t know, blogs and the internerd?

Jesella and Meltzer make a compelling argument that the real successors to Sassy are blogs themselves, focusing on unique, personal voices, more interested in subjective takes than pretending to be some distant god(dess) peering over your shoulder telling you how it is. And, well, Sassy mastered snark before snark was snark. (Also, they tended to use their snark for good, turning it on deserving targets.) And how I miss the presence of a publication for teen girls with feminism at its heart; Sassy believed in the importance of girl power (or, more precisely, grrrl power).

The authors don’t just give the sunshine and roses though — Jesella and Meltzer deal with the fact that there could be a cliquey aspect to the magazine (again, internet, anyone?), particularly for those girls who worked as interns or on reader-produced issues. Sometimes girls that weren’t a certain kind of cool were made to feel not cool at all. But I still say that Sassy was more inclusive than exclusive. And that even if the staff didn’t always walk the walk, the magazine talked the talk and that was all most of us had access to anyway. Sassy’s central message was to do something. Anything. Activism was better than being cool. Creating music or art or whatever was better than being cool. Being smart was better than being cool. Oh, how I miss that.

Ultimately, America wasn’t ready for a dose of healthy Australian straight-talk for teenagers. The magazine wasn’t able to survive lengthy battles with the conservative Christian right, its unearned rep as sex-obsessed, or a round robin of publishers. In some ways, it reminds me of Freaks and Geeks — when that show was cancelled one of the producers said something along the lines of it being hard to be bitter when it was amazing such a show was ever allowed on network television to begin with. Along those lines, I can’t believe Sassy was ever mass-distributed and I’m grateful it lasted as long as it did. I’m thrilled, though, that its legacy has been rescued a little by this book.

I don’t just recommend it for those of us who hearted the mag when we were teens. I think that teen girls today, particularly ones just as dismayed at the pap in the current crop of teen mags, would love it. It would help them see a bit of the History of Teenage Girls and, especially, the History of Teenage Girls and feminism. And, well, that only sounds ridiculous because we’re still conditioned to think of teenage girls as ridiculous and unimportant in many ways. And that sucks. So read the book.

(Full One Shot World Tour schedule at the end of this post.)

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One Shot World Tour Post: Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: The Movie!

Well, this is actually an unscheduled post on the Best Read With Vegemite tour, because it serendipitously came up last night. You guys may recall how much I adored Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword last year? I still adore it and now it’s out in paperback. Now, Jeff is not Australian (that I’m aware of!) and the book’s set in ficitional Ambergris.

HOWEVER, there was a movie made of the book, featuring a soundtrack by The Church ("Wish I knew what you were looking for," you know), and it’s just hit the Web. Go over to Jeff’s site for all the details and to watch it.

Scheduled stops to follow. I’m posting the full schedule of the other participants and topics behind the cut. Meander their way…

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