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Four Books and a Movie

As summer draws to a close, I've been catching up on some YA reading: one series by an author new to me but recommended by some of you, Justine Larbalestier, and one huge novel by Aidan Chambers, an author known to me more from his contributions to the Horn Book but also from one of his earlier books.

I'll start with the Aidan Chambers: This Is All. The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn. This is an absolutely wonderful book, the best YA novel I've read since Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca, and one of the best ever.

I admired but did not love Aidan Chambers' earlier work Postcards From No Man's Land. It received a great deal of praise, deservedly, and won that year's Carnegie Medal, also deservedly, but I felt that although it was intelligent and courageous it suffered somewhat from the weight of its worthiness. It was the classic YA Problem novel, writ large: the coming of age story of a young man coming to terms with his own identity as a homosexual against the backdrop of a parallel story set in Holland during the Nazi occupation and of course the holocaust.

The Pillow Book, on the other hand, succeeds on every level. It is a true Young Adult novel - not just a children's book with sex in it but a book that explores what it means to mature, to find oneself and to grapple with the issues and difficulties that one confronts in adult life. One of the deep pleasures of reading this book was the distinct and delightful voice of its narrator; Chambers manages to capture the cadences of a young person without ever resorting to a lowering of style or diction. Cordelia Kann has been collecting entries in a series of "Pillow Books" from the time when, just before her 16th birthday, she determines that she needs to lose her virginity and chooses the young man with whom she wishes to do the deed. It ends when she is twenty. It is framed by her wish to organize and collect her writings as a gift for her unborn child, so some of the chronological entries are interspersed with her addressing her daughter directly. There are two important phrases that state two of the many themes in this work - "writing is a gift" and "all writing is memory." How important these are becomes sharply focussed at the conclusion of the novel, but the concepts are woven throughout.

This is a huge work, both literally and figuratively. (to be honest, my only complaint about this novel is its sheer physical size; it is over 800 pages, tightly bound in hardcover, and is hard to hold and to read. I'm eager for it to appear in paperback so that I can read it again more comfortably). It contains so many gifts. Primarily it is a love story - a glorious, all holds barred depiction of a strong and wonderful love between Cordelia and Will, the boy to whom she gives her virginity. But it portrays many other kinds of love as well - love between parents and children, the love Cordelia feels for her unborn child, love of words - poetry in particular - and, above all, a pure and joyous love for life itself. I can't reveal much more about the overwhelming power and impact of this book without spoilers, so I won't say much more, except that I highly recommend it to anyone who loves words, books, reading, people, and life.

I've been reading the Magic or Madness trilogy by Justine Larbalestier intermittently over the summer, having bought the first one in paperback and then looked for the other two from the library. Justine Larbalestier is a new young writer from Australia, and these books, though rather evidently novice offerings, show a fair bit of promise.

Reason Cansino and her mother Serafina have been on the run all Reason's life, running from Reason's grandmother, and some secret about their family. The secret is soon revealed to be that the members of their family have magical powers. Their magical "gift" is double-edged: the magic, if used, will cause them to die young, but if unused will make them go mad. Serafina goes mad. Reason, her grandmother, and her two friends Jay-Tee and Tom, choose the magic but face quite literally burning themselves out. It is also possible for one with the power to feed vampirically on the power of another, thus preserving him or herself for a longer life-span. Reason must learn either to accept her fate or find some way to escape it.

The magic in these works is very well presented and the basic premise is intriguing. Many of the issues that arise out of the conflicts in the works are interesting - the seductive promise of power, the greed of those who would wish to sustain it and themselves without care for the lives of others. These books in some ways reminded me of the YA novels of Margaret Mahy - that is a compliment, though Larbalastier suffers a little from the comparison, and these are nowhere near as well done. The ideas are good, the execution a little less so. I found the characters somewhat lightly drawn and their voices rather undistinguishable (she switches between three points of view). The writing suffers a little from the tendency to believe that saying "fuck" and "shit" a lot and using contractions will capture the voice and spirit of a young person. These are to a certain extent children's books with sex and swear words in them rather than novels with the power and depth of the Chambers (or Mahy's work). As I mentioned, I felt that these were very much "novice" works, and I found myself less and less engaged as the trilogy progressed. However, I was interested enough to finish all three, and will look forward to reading more from Larbalastier in the future.

Finally, the movie. This was Friends With Money, which I'd been wanting to see for some time, but have only just got round to. Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, this portrays a group of wealthy married women and their one single friend, who works as a housemaid. The cast includes Jennifer Aniston, in one of her bids to be a "serious actor", Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack.

I love all these actresses, and they are all wonderful in this movie, but the movie as a whole doesn't really amount to much. I'm not ultimately sure what it was meant to be about. Money doesn't necessarily bring happiness? Ho hum. Perhaps it's about uncertainty and ambivalence - there are questions about honesty, gayness, happiness and so on that remain unresolved by the end of the movie; unfortunately, the ambivalence of the characters and the plot sinks into the affect of the movie. I'm not sure whether I liked it or not. I loved the performances, but felt somewhat ... shall we say ... unmoved at the end.
Tags: aidan chambers, books, friends with money, justine larbalestier, movie, reading, review
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