Strange Heaven by Lynn Coady

“It seemed as if things were happening without much reason or point. There were no warning bells going off anywhere to announce: This is going to happen. And once things did happen, there was no discernible aftermath. ”

Bridget’s mother phoned with lists of people who had died and at the end of the summer, Archie Shearer killed Jennifer MacDonnell. “Bridget’s mother called her up and told her that.” Then they talked about it for a few minutes and “moved on to Bridget’s bowel movements and what had she heard from the social workers. And by the time Bridget hung up, she recognized that she had forgotten all about Archie Shearer and Jennifer MacDonnell during the last part of the conversation even though they were her neighbours and close to her in age. It still was like a thing on a screen. Now that it happened and she knew of it, it didn’t concern her any more. That was what other people’s dying meant.”

Bridget is seventeen and she has gone to Halifax to have a baby which was adopted and then Strange Heavenshe was moved to a psych ward of a children`s hospital. Her companions on the psych ward include Mona from Toronto, Kelly and Maria the anorexics, Byron who sits cross-legged and howls like a hound, Shane who worried about drugs in the ventilation system and Jimmy who played with Lego blocks plus Gabby the nurse and Babs the social worker. The news from home (Cape Breton) passes in and out of her awareness and gets mixed together with what preoccupies her in the hospital. She is on medication but doesn’t know what it is or what it is meant to do for her. Her friends from home and her graduating class – Heidi, Chantal, Mark, Daniel, Stephen – also join the mix made up of her reflections as does Alan Voorland from Guelph.

Her memories, including those of her parents (Robert and Joan) and her Uncle Albert and his wife, Margaret P. and Rollie, Robert’s handicapped brother, are also included in  this  ”strange heaven”, the milieu in which Bridget is immersed and through which she wades resolutely as she tries to make some meaning of the lot in life she seems to have been given thus far.

Bridget’s friend Alan Voorland “was able to take her out on day passes because he qualified as an adult. He was one. He pulled into Tim Horton’s first and said they were going to have dinner there. It was a joke, and funny because they always used to drive to the Tim Horton’s in Antigonish in order to get away from town. They would joke about having driven an hour just to sit and smoke and drink coffee.”

“Alan always spoke as if he were reading the news. “Here I am with my funny friend Bridget Murphy,” he said in the restaurant he took her to after the joke about Tim’s. “Out on a day pass from the psychiatric wards. Yes indeed. She is somewhat gaunt in appearance but seems in good health overall.”

“When she first met him, this way of speaking had made her feel special.” Alan described Antigonish as “a wonderful place, a fascinating people with a thriving unique culture. And yet there is a sadness. A hopelessness about it all. The dependence on welfare, unemployment insurance. The Bottle.”

“It was impossible not to feel special. It was also impossible not to feel a little dumb. For the first time she experienced herself and her surroundings as something other than commonplace. For Alan they were positively alien. He wanted to hear stories about Bridget’s Gramma.”

Alan “was as interesting to her as she was to him because he talked more, even when sober, than any man she knew. He talked just for the sake of talking, using words that weren’t even necessary to get the meaning across.” Their friendship “was such that they told stories about themselves to one another. It took Bridget awhile to get the hang of this, and so in the beginning Alan did most of it. He told her about his intelligent and interesting friends and all the quirky, whimisical adventures they had together. ” He had a notebook full of character sketches and he would read to her. He said it was the little things that fascinated him. “Like me,” Bridget said. Wittily, she thought.” When he took her out on a day pass he got her to tell him the story of her time in the hospital and so the reader learns more that way of Bridget’s journey. “She related all this to Alan as amusingly as she could.” Alan listened for his own amusement but in doing so he acted as Bridget’s therapist and he trained her to be an observer of her life in a sense.

Bridget’s experience with her actual therapist is different and she tells Dr. Solomon that if “somebody were listening to me, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably start lying to them” and then she laughed. What she remembered mostly about the birth was guilt. “She felt bad. She was in a room with two adults asking her questions. She had done something wrong.   She was seventeen years old. She had been bleeding into a nice, thick hospital napkin which had to be changed every hour….Blood had to be the guiltiest thing there was. It came out and it kept coming. It was like The Birth. “I”m sorry,” were the first words she had to say after that. And that’s what her body had said too, and was still saying.”

“It seemed like, even if you didn’t want it to, or even if you paid no attention to it whatsoever, life, existence, whatever it was, carried on and it carried you with it. Like your body, it was indifferent to you. That’s what Bridget thought. Her body was part of life and life was life and always took you along for the ride and you never had any say.” In the author’s words a little further on : “she had gone from adult status, in giving birth, to that of a child, in being depressed. It was all as arbitrary as the days were long.” A clear message about how society was/is treating young women in Bridget’s position?New Waterford Girl

This book reminds me so much of the movie New Waterford Girl in which you can find all the characters that appear in Strange Heaven. The movie does not include a hospital or a pyschiatric facility but there is little doubt that the main character would admit to feeling like she was in such a facility much of the time! The book expands upon the pregnancy experience more than the movie but the issues are covered in both media. They are a complementary pair in the best sense (the movie was released in 1999 and the book was nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 1998).

 

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

“Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success. Her parents were well to do and kept a ladies’ hat shop in the prosperous town of Market Chipping. True, her own mother died when Sophie was two years old and her sister Lettie was one year old, and their father married his youngest shop assistant, a pretty blonde girl called Fanny. Fanny shortly gave birth to the third sister, Martha.”

One of the topics of great interest in the town of Market Chipping was the Witch of the Waste. The Witch had “threatened the life of the King’s daughter” and the King had “commended his personal magician, Wizard Suliman, to go into the Waste and deal with the Witch.” The outcome of this was that the Wizard had not returned and the townspeople believed he had been killed by the Witch.

Shortly after the Wizard had disappeared, a tall black castle had appeared in the hills above Howl's Moving Castle 1Market Chipping. The castle had four tall, thin turrets and clouds of black smoke issued from those towers.

The townspeople believed the Witch was behind the presence of the castle, especially because the castle sometimes appeared on the moors to the northwest of the town, then it would be in the east above the rocks and then it would move closer to the town and sit in the heather just beyond the last farm to the north of the town. Sometimes they saw the castle actually moving and the black smoke would be pouring out of the tall turrets. The Mayor of Market Chipping was thinking about sending to the King for help.

When they found out that the castle did not belong to the Witch but to Wizard Howl they were even more frightened. Stories were spread about that Wizard Howl collected young girls and sucked their souls away from them just to amuse himself. All the young women in Market Chipping were warned not to go about town by themselves.

Then, disaster strikes the Hatter family. Just at the time when Sophie was about to finish up her schooling, her father died suddenly. He had gone into debt to send his daughters to the best schools so the shop itself was in debt and all the girls had to leave school. Fanny decided to keep Sophie as an apprentice but also had to send her sisters Lettie and Martha out to apprentice elsewhere. She sent Lettie to Cesari’s bakeshop and Martha to Annabel Fairfax who was a witch with an excellent reputation in the Folding Valley.

Sophie’s apprenticeship progresses rather well because she had considerable talent at decorating hats but she was lonely and taken advantage of somewhat by her stepmother who was seldom in the shop to help Sophie. She missed her sisters very much. When May Day came she finished up her work and determined to go to Cesari’s to see her sister. It was crowded in town and when a young man in “a fantastical blue and silver suit” approached her somewhat aggressively she tried to hide from him.

“It’s all right, you little grey mouse,” he said, laughing rather pityingly. “I only want to buy you a drink. Don’t look so scared.” He coaxes but she eventually gets away and rushes to the bakery to find Lettie.

A few days later, “the grandest customer she had ever seen sailed in, with a sable wrap drooping from her elbows and diamonds winking all over her dense black dress.” the lady was wearing a “wealthy hat” and was accompanied by a young man “pale and obviously upset” who “stared at Sophie with a kind of beseeching horror”.

The woman rejects all the hats Sophie shows her and says that Sophie is wasting her time. When Sophie defends her position things rapidly deteriorate and when she dares to suggest that the woman should not have bothered to come in the young man gasps and becomes more upset. The woman then identifies herself as the Witch of the Waste and puts a spell on Sophie which will change her life completely.

“Sophie got herself to the mirror, and found she had to hobble. The face in the mirror was quite calm…it was the face of a gaunt old woman, withered and brownish, surrounded by wispy white hair. Her own eyes, yellow and watery, stared out at her, looking rather tragic.”

Howl's Moving Castle 2She was warned not to tell anyone about the spell and she knew she could not stay and face Fanny so she packed a few things she thought would be useful and locked up and left. She decided she would write to her sisters eventually and knew also that she would have “to do” for the Witch of the Waste when she had the chance but for the time being she simply had to put some distance between herself and the town.  “…it took her a while to notice that some of the grinding and puffing was not coming from herself at all. She looked up blurrily.

Wizard Howl’s castle was rumbling and bumping towards her across the moorland…black smoke was blowing up in clouds from behind its black battlements…She raised her stick and waved it imperiously at the castle.

Stop!” she shreiked.

The castle obediently came to a rumbling, grinding halt about fifty feet uphill from her. Sophie felt rather gratified as she hobbled towards it.”

And so begins a wonderful adventure for all ages! Settle in and enjoy!

 

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Cimorene was a princess in the large kingdom of Linderwall which is “just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show…periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers…could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child…”  Cimorene was the youngest daughter of the King and she hated it in Linderwall.

When she was twelve, her father found out she was bullying the armsmaster to give her fencing lessons. She argued but her mother put her foot down, saying it simply wasn’t proper.

At age fourteen, her father discovered that she had been making the court magician teach her magic ever since her fencing lessons had been forbidden.

She came up against similar resistance when she tried Latin lessons, cooking lessons, economics and juggling lessons and so, when she was sixteen, she summoned her fairy godmother. The fairy godmother explained that she should only be called in the case of  matters of utmost importance to Cimorene’s life and future happiness. It turned out that the fairy godmother was in league with her parents and so she bade same fairy godmother a polite good-bye.

Quite suddenly her parents arranged an engagement without informing her and informed them that she didn’t want to marry Prince Therandil nomatter how good looking he was. Her parents refused to change the plans and Prince Therandil could not be enlisted to help. While bemoaning her status in the castle garden she uttered the thought that she “would rather be eaten by a dragon” and a small green frog replied “That can be arranged.” The frog just happens to dislike Therandil for sinking rocks on the pond in the garden and letting them fall into the frog’s living room. After a discussion of Cimorene’s qualifications the frog decides that there is no other option than to run away. He offers her full instructions and later that night Cimorene sets out with five clean handkerchiefs and her best crown. She followed the frog’s Dealing with Dragonsinstructions very carefully and arrived at a “tiny, wretched-looking hovel made of cracked and weathered gray boards. The door hung slant-wise on a broken hinge, and the whole building looked like it were going to topple over at any moment.” She knocked three times, snapped her fingers, pushed the door open and walked inside.

It was very dark inside the hovel but when Cimoriene informs whomever is speaking to her that “I can’t see who you are in this dark, you know” “a small ball of light appeared in the air above Cimorene’s head. Cimorene stepped backward very quickly and ran into the wall.

The voices belonged to dragons.”

And so begins a wonderful adventure in which Cimorene becomes a dragon’s princess. A dragon named Kazul. A female dragon who becomes the King of Dragons. Yes!

Recommended for teens and about-to-be-teens and grandmothers who are attracted to dragon stories and anyone else who is so inclined!

 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

“My sister Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. This was after I understood that I wasn’t going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of mistake.”

I”m fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon. Greta was sixteen. It was 1986, Tell the Wolveslate Decmber, and we’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it.”

“Nobody talked much on those trips to the city. It was just the smooth glide of the van and the croony country music and the gray Hudson River with hulking gray New Jersey on the other side of it. I kept my eyes on Greta the whole time, because it stopped me from thinking about Finn too much.”

“On the way home I asked Greta if she thought you could catch AIDS from hair. She shrugged, then turned and stared out the window for the rest of the ride. I shampooed my hair three times that night (June’s Uncle Finn has kissed the top of her hair when Greta had pulled out some mistletoe). I thought about how just for a second, just as he’d leaned into me, AIDS and Greta and my mother had disappeared from the room. It was only Finn and me in that tiniest of moments, and before I could stop myself I wondered what it might be like if he really did kiss my lips.”

June’s relationship with her uncle made Greta jealous and caused a rupture in the girls’ formerly loving companionship. “Greta knew the kind of friend Finn was to me. She knew that he took me to art galleries, that he taught me how to soften my drawings of faces just by rubbing a finger along the pencil lines. She knew that she wasn’t part of any of that.” “It’s hard to say exactly when we stopped being best friends, when we stopped even resembling two girls who were sisters. Greta went to high school and I was in middle school. Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got …weirder.” Greta accused June of being in love with Uncle Finn.

Uncle Finn took June to the Cloisters and it became their favorite place. They were “like a piece of another time right at the top of Manhatten. …made of huge chunks of French medieval monasteries that were shipped to New York and stuck together. ” June imagined being with Finn there and “illuminating manuscripts with the thinnest flakes of gold leaf” and not saying a word but gazing at one another across the room. “That’s the kind of love I imagined with Finn. That’s what I told myself.” Finn took her to movies like Amadeus and Room with a View and he talked to her about the characters.

June knew Uncle Finn was dying but the news was still a great shock. A man’s voice left a message: “I’m ringing about your uncle. Uncle Finn in the city. I”ll try back later.”

June had not picked up the phone. “Finn was gone. I knew Finn was gone. …I picked up the phone and dialed his number, which I knew by heart.”

The person who had called was seen at the funeral home and June begins to wonder who he is and what he was doing in her Uncle Finn’s apartment when he called. What a shock for June: Uncle Finn had a friend who might have even lived in his apartment where June and Greta went to have their  portrait painted every Sunday. How could that be?

Here’s the first reference to the wolves (June has gone for a walk in the woods after a snowstorm and is lying flat out in the snow, looking up at the twisted patterns of the bare tree branches against the gray sky):

“Then, into the silence, over the top of everything, came a long, sad howl. For a second it felt like the sound had come from inside me. Like the world had taken everything I was feeling and turned it into sound….By  the time I sat up, there were two howls. … The howls weren’t steady. Both of them had a kind of cracked-voice sound to them, and they were staggered. …The howls grew louder, and a picture of a big lunging gray wolf with tons of matted fur popped into my mind. For a single dumb moment it really did feel like I was in the woods in the Middle Ages, when wolves could take away babies or eat a person whole.
“I’m not afraid,” I called out across the hills. Then I ran, stumbling and tripping…out of the woods, into the school parking lot…doubled over, catching my breath.”

Then an article appears in The New York Times about the portrait of the two girls. In the article it is revealed that the portrait is entitled ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’. None of the family had known this was the title of the painting. June is convinced that only Toby, Finn’s friend, could have known this. She has learned his friend’s name from a letter he sent asking to meet her.

Ah…but that’s a good place to stop. An extremely good coming-of-age story full of relational wisdom for all ages.  Fun literary references, movie titles, television shows. Also a rather unique adventure surrounding the portrait. Enjoy!

 

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

This is a delightful, daring, delicious, diverting and demanding dragon tale! And it has a sequel which I have started into already because I must know what happens next!

Most of what one needs to know is concisely provided in two pages entitled From the Primer Scrolls of Jion Tzu which states:

“No one knows how the first Dragoneyes made their dangerous bargain with the twelve energy dragons of good fortune. The few scrolls and poems that have survived the centuries start the story well after the deal was struck between man and spirit-beast to protect our land. It is rumored however, that a black folio still exists that tells of the violent beginning and predicts a catastrophic end to the ancient alliance.
The dragons are elemental beings, able to manipulate Hua – the natural energy that exists in all things. Each dragon is aligned with one of the heavenly animals in the twelve-year cycle of power…Each dragon is also the guardian of one of the twelve celestial directions, and a keeper of one of the Greater Virtues.”

Every year on New Year’s Day the next animal year begins and the dragon representing Eonthat animal becomes ascendant and his power doubles for the next twelve months. Also for that dragon a new apprentice is chosen and the present apprentice becomes Dragoneye and replaces his master who retires. The Dragoneye has enough power to move monsoons, redirect rivers and stop earthshakes. His bargain includes giving up his Hua to his dragon.

“Only those boys who can see an energy dragon can hope to be a Dragoneye candidate.” The boys go through a rigorous training program. This includes a study of Dragon Magic, based on East Asian astrology and based on the skills of sword-work and magical aptitude. It is understood that “women have no place in the world of the dragon magic.
It is said they can bring corruption to the art and do not have the physical strength or depth of character needed to commune with an energy dragon. It s also thought that the female eye, too practiced in gazing at itself, cannot see the truth of the energy world.”

At the outset we meet Eon at a training session: “I let the tips of both my swords dig into the sandy arena floor. It was the wrong move, but the dragging pain in my gut was pulling me into a crouch. I watched Swordmaster Ranne’s bare feet shuffle forward, rebalancing his weight for a sweep cut. Training with him always made my innards cramp with fear, but this was different. This was the bleeding pain. Had I miscounted the moon days?”

The Swordmaster tells Eon: “You’ll never be ready. You can’t even finish the approach sequence.”

Eon has a comfort that eases the harsh treatment from Ranne: “I was the only candidate who could see all of the dragons at will, not counting the Mirror Dragon, of course, who had been lost long ago. It took all my focus to see the spirit beasts and left me weary, but it was the only thing that had made the last two years of hard training bearable. It was also the only reason why a cripple like me was allowed to stand as a candidate – full dragon sight was rare, although, as Swordmaster Ranne liked to remind me, no guarantee of success.”

Needless to say,there is considerable pressure on the candidates for dragoneye apprenticeship. Eon ‘s friend Dillon was as worried as Eon was about the ceremony. Dillon and Eon “were the weakest candidates. He was of age – twelve, like all the boys in the circle – but as small as an eight year old, and I was lame. In the past, we wouldn’t even have been considered as Dragoneye candidates. Neither of us was expected to be chosen by the Rat Dragon in the ceremony tomorrrow. All the gambling rings have Dillon at a 30:1 chance. I was at 1000:1. The odds might be against us but even the council did not know how a dragon made its choice.”

Tough  odds! and reason to be worried. Lives would change for those who were not successful. “Candidates no longer fought for the honor of approaching the mirrors, but we still had to prove our strength and stamina in the ceremonial sword sequences. At least Dillon could complete the approach sequence, even if it was poorly done. I had never once managed the intricate moves at the Mirror Dragon Third.”

Much was riding on this contest. If the Rat Dragon chose a boy he would “hold status for twenty-four years; first working as apprentice to the existing Dragoneye and then, when he (that Dragoneye) retired, working the energies” himself. He would earn “a mountain of riches, even with the 20 per cent tithe” to his former master. To Eon, it meant that “no one would dare spit at him or make the ward-evil sign or turn their face away in disgust (because he was a cripple).”

If he did not get chosen, he would be lucky to be kept on as a servant in his master’s house likely as a slops boy or be sent back to the salt farm where he used to work.

No wonder Eon was puzzled by his gift to see all eleven dragons and his ability to shift his mind into the energy world and see those huge translucent bodies. He was told by the Armsmaster the day before the ceremony that he was never going to be able to get the Mirror Dragon Third sequence right but that there was a precedent for using a Reverse Horse Dragon Second and that Ranne should have told him about this. He checks with his master when he goes home and learns that what he has been told is correct. This means he has a chance.

Will he become a Dragoneye? How will he manage being a cripple and all? Why has it been made so difficult for him? Who are his friends? Who are his enemies? How will he manage against such odds? A great story that holds and grabs one’s attention to the end and leaves one wanting more, more, more!