Monday, April 21, 2008

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Winner of the 2008 Prinz Award, The White Darkness is an unforgettable read. Not only is the story multifaceted, but the language is rich in structure and words. Symone Wates is a 14 year old English girl who is fascinated, or should we say obsessed with all thing Antarctica. Her bookshelves are full of accounts of the geography and expeditions to the continent at the bottom of the world. Her best friend and spiritual partner is Titus Oakes, a captain who died nearly 90 years ago in the failed Capt. Robert Scott expedition. Her father has just died and her Uncle Victor has stepped in to take his place. Sym believes that her father never really liked her anyway, so to have a doting uncle gives her a small bit of comfort. Imagine Sym's excitement when Victor decides to take her mother and her to Paris for the weekend, especially since it is approaching exam time. But wait, at Waterloo station Sym's mother can't find her passport and not wanting to spoil the others' getaway, decides to remain in England. (How did the passport really end up in Victor's possession?)

Uncle Victor also is fascinated with Antarctica and believes in the theory that there is a hole that lead to the hollow earth that can be reached from there. What a coincidence that it is called Symme's Hole. With the trip to Paris being a ruse, Victor now makes the final preparation to travel with Sym to Antarctica to begin his own exploration. They travel to South America and meet up with the Pengwings Tour Group. He also meets up with Manfred Bruch, a film producer from Norway, and his son Sigurd, just a few years older than Sym. He offers to pay Victor a huge sum for filming the ultimate discovery. But wait, members of the tour are getting sick, a plane has exploded as an evacuation is planned. What is happening?

As the novel continues it is an adventure and survival story extraordinaire. Victor, Sym, Magred, and Sigrud set off across the continent in a Hagglund all terrain vehicle searching for Symme's Hole. It is a journey through the White Darkness complicated by fog, blinding snow storms and a very limited fuel supply. Throughout her life and this story Sym has confided in and trusted the judgement of Titus. Her conversations ARE real and now at a life and death crosswords she has to decide whether she should put her trust in him, or Uncle Victor, who has been a mentor and has loved her when her father didn't, or Sigrud, who has shown her that she is young woman who does not have to be awkward around the opposite sex. In the end we all hope that she has made the right choice.

An author's note at the conclusion of the book explains the fate of the Scott expedition and is a helpful addition.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Henry James' Midnight Song by Carol De Chellis Hill

It has been a very hectic couple of months for me with lots of classes in the library so it has taken a while to finish this incredibly crafted novel. To assign a genre to the book would prove most difficult as it is a combination of gothic, historical fiction, mystery, satire, and philosophical and social critique. The setting is fin de siecle Vienna with a cast of well-known characters that include Edith Wharton, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and of course, Henry James. A mysterious manuscript that details the story when it is delivered to an isolated cabin in Maine. Women in Vienna are being murdered and notes have been left that add further intrigue to the story. And then another murder, a corpse is found at 91 Bergstrasse, the home of Freud by his wife and the hysterical maid and disappears as fast. Was it really there? Special Investigator Maurice LeBlanc is recalled from Paris to investigate the murders and arrives on the scene that leads him to the Countess von Gerzl's house and a family from the states that is staying with her. The characters become so intertwined that eventually they are all suspects in the murder. Deeper into the novel are the themes of feminism, antisemitism, nihilism, and even a prediction of Hitler's rise to power. The ending was totally unpredictable and had me guessing right to the end.
I was fascinated with the historical setting and am curious to read further about Henry James and Edith Wharton. It really was great read packed with literary, philosophical, scenic references. Carol De Chellis Hill includes scholarly footnotes of explanation that are really a part of the manuscript that professor relates. Definitely a stimulating read and one that will rank among my favorites.