SMALL PRINT: DEIRDRE BAKER
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, Candlewick, 544 pages, $29.99, ages 10-14
M.T. Anderson is a weird, wonderful literary innovator; here he teams up with the peculiar genius of illustrator Yelchin in a work that’s part prose, part graphic novel. Scholar elf Brangwain Spurge expects nothing but barbarity when he’s sent to deliver a gift to, and spy on, the goblin kingdom. As for Werfel, Spurge’s goblin host, he wants nothing more than to show Spurge the best of goblin culture — and to report back on any nefarious activities. When Spurge’s behaviour arouses the goblins’ wrath, Werfel does what any generous host should do — smuggles him out of the city. As the two scholars “dash hectically across the land” fleeing assaults from both kingdoms, they arrive at quite a different understanding of their respective cultures. This tale takes on the simplistic oppositions of epic fantasy, playfully examining the kinds of assumptions that prevent elves and goblins (and people) from recognizing what they share — and just how little the authorities are to be trusted. Sharp political commentary, astute insight into character, prose so lucid it could be otherworldly — a must for all adventurous readers.
Love to Everyone, by Hilary McKay, McElderry Books, 328 pages, $23.99, ages 9-14
McKay’s well-known for her wise, funny family stories, but this is her first foray into historical fiction — and what a satisfying foray it is. Clarry, her brother Peter and charismatic cousin Rupert have always been good friends, spending precious summers together with grandparents in Cornwall. But they’re growing up in the darkening shadow of the First World War: Rupert enlists, Peter’s sent to boarding school, and Clarry is left at home with her neglectful father, barely managing to get his consent to attend the local grammar school. Then Rupert is reported missing, “presumed dead,” and Clarry sets off to find him. This is a story both broad and deep, sketching the scope of the “ravenous, expectant smile” of the Western Front, but evoking poignantly and precisely the character of warm-hearted, clever Clarry, along with the hurlyburly of wartime and the strange, new opportunities it offers. McKay’s quick, poetic prose, her exploration of family love, friendship, and the growth of mind and spirit, make this outstanding.
The House of One Thousand Eyes, by Michelle Barker, Annick, 340 pages, $19.95, ages 14 and up
This compulsive page-turner takes us into the heart of East Berlin in the 1980s, where 17-year-old Lena lives with her stern, devotedly Communist aunt, and works as a night janitor at Stasi headquarters. Ever since her nervous breakdown when her parents were killed in an “incident,” Lena has thought of herself as “simple.” But she’s not so simple that she doesn’t know something’s wrong when her beloved uncle, a writer, disappears — along with all record of his existence. Suspense is high as Lena struggles to learn her uncle’s fate, discerning who is to be trusted; who is not, and enduring the abusive sexual predation of a Stasi official. Barker knows the art of making every sentence count, from Lena’s pleasure at “sandwiches with butter!” to the eerily violent image of photographs defaced with pinking shears that leave “zigzag patterns, like teeth.” The story has the propulsion of a thriller, but Barker’s observant, poetic language gives it a deep, dark texture, offering layer upon layer of historical and psychological richness.