Thursday, May 14, 2015

Author in the spotlight

A couple of weeks ago, author Marcus Sedgwick spoke at the annual Frances Clarke Sayers lecture at UCLA. (Sayers was an innovative librarian, teacher, and writer in whose memory this event is held each year. It's a great honor to be the author invited to speak on this occasion, and in fact Sedgwick flew in from England to do so!)

Sedgwick was speaking about his brand-new book, The Ghosts of Heaven, which I had not read prior to the event (but I made sure to buy an autographed copy for the library while I was there), and it was a fascinating lecture that revealed the process by which this versatile author chooses his material and writes his books.

Goodreads describes it:
"Four linked stories boldly chronicle madness, obsession, and creation through the ages. Beginning with the cave-drawings of a young girl on the brink of creating the earliest form of writing, Sedgwick traverses history, plunging into the seventeenth-century witch hunts and a 1920s insane asylum where a mad poet's obsession with spirals seems to be about to unhinge the world of the doctor trying to save him. Sedgwick moves beyond the boundaries of historical fiction and into the future in the book's final section, set upon a spaceship voyaging to settle another world for the first time. Merging Sedgwick's gift for suspense with science and historical fiction, Ghosts of Heaven is a tale is worthy of intense obsession."

In preparation for this afternoon with Sedgwick, I jumped in and read some of his other books, starting with Midwinterblood, the book for which he won the Printz Award in 2014. (The Printz Award annually honors the best book written for teens, based on its literary merit.) And what a fascinating, mesmerizing book it is. It is somewhat similar in structure to his new book, in that it is made up of multiple "episodes," all linked together by a strange island and a story of reincarnation in which lovers find one another in various unmatching guises down through the centuries. I was enthralled by this book, but I have to say that I have no idea why it would be promoted specifically as a young adult novel. It is, in my opinion, more for a particular kind of reader than for a reader of a particular age. Having said that, I do know several teens to whom I would recommend this.

Next, I read his historical fiction novel The Foreshadowing, which is set in 1915, at the beginning of World War I. It follows 17-year-old Alexandra, known as Sasha, a sheltered English girl whose premonitions about her brother Thomas's death in the war lead her on a perilous journey behind the front lines in an attempt to save Thomas from his fate.

I admired this book tremendously. I like Sedgwick's spare writing style, and the feeling of uneasiness verging on despair that permeates the writing is so effective. I like the diary-like format, and seeing everything from Alexandra's point of view. I did wonder, since the book is positioned as historical fiction, whether there is enough explanation. As an adult who has read extensively about World War I, just the mention of places like the Somme, Flanders, Amiens, etc. bring to mind the spectacle of ruin and despair, the soldiers choking in gas-filled trenches, the pointlessly slaughtered thousands. But if you don't know your history…? I'm not sure this would evoke it to the point of understanding for someone with little knowledge.

I thought the plot twist was brilliant, and didn't feel any sense of disconnect from realism with the introduction of Alexandra's premonitions to the story--there is a long history, particularly with the Welsh and Irish and Scots, of this kind of thing, and I wouldn't call the book "paranormal" because of it, or even magical realism.

The next book on my list was White Crow, which falls into the horror genre, while basing itself in a purely local historical context. It's a simple, spare book about two girls who end up being the kind of friends created only by proximity. Rebecca is stranded in a small village with her father, who has fled from a hinted at but largely unexplained problem in London, and in her lonely wanderings around the surrounding countryside she meets Ferelith, a fey, strange local girl who takes her adventuring through the secret places of Winterfold to their eventual peril. 

I can't say I liked this book, or even that I enjoyed it. It was fascinating, and creepy, and weird, and horror fans (which, admittedly, I am not) would probably love it. It does show the range, versatility, and imagination of this author. The ideas were interesting, albeit horrifying; but the execution was too sparse and fragmented for my taste. I needed to know more about all the participants and their back stories, in order to commit. I think I understand the effect he was pursuing, but for me there wasn't enough to any of the tracks to keep me suspended in that "I have to know" place.

I then read what I would consider his most true-to-age-level young adult novel of those I chose to read: She Is Not Invisible. It is set in the present day, beginning in England but primarily taking place in New York City, and narrated by a blind girl named Laureth. Laureth's father, a writer, is supposed to be in Austria, but his precious notebook, which never leaves his possession, has somehow turned up in the hands of a stranger in New York City, who has emailed to claim the reward offered inside its front cover. Laureth, worried about her father, takes her little brother, Benjamin (and his stuffed raven, Stan), and gets on a plane to New York to find him--and what an adventure it is!

What is so unusual about this book is how it takes us into the entire experience from the "viewpoint" of the blind girl. Nothing in the book is described visually--which you don't think of as such a big deal until you realize how visually dependent most authors are as they set the scene for you. In most books, people are described by how they look and what they are wearing; rooms are painted for you with colors and styles of furniture; streets are grim-looking or festive; but not here. As you read She Is Not Invisible, you experience the world by holding the hand of the sighted Benjamin and having it interpreted for you through the filter of a bright seven-year-old, who brings his own perspective to everything. As Laureth, you hear voices and sounds, smell smells, feel textures and temperatures, but there is absolutely no visual to this story. Questions from Laureth and answers from Benjamin, plus her faith and confusion and confidence and fear become yours, as if it is you whom Benjamin leads by the hand.

The book is also about coincidence, synchronicity, an obsession with making order from chaos, discovering random moments of clarity from a background of noise. It's a journey for all the characters, and the last paragraph is an unexpected and delightful gift. (All you people who read the last page of a book first, DON'T DO IT! You'll be sorry.) I loved this story!

Having read four of Sedgwick's books in close proximity, I have to give the author props for the widely divergent directions of all of his novels--he really keeps it interesting! While everything he writes isn't to my taste, I would definitely try reading each and every book he publishes, simply because you never know where he will go next. While the Alex Award is given each year to adult novels that are appealing to teens, Sedgwick's works--while written for teens--have tremendous adult appeal as well. What a fascinating writer.

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