Thursday, October 31, 2013

Eldritch Manor by Kim Thompson

Eldritch Manor
by Kim Thompson
Dundurn, 2012
176 pages

Days after finishing this, I am still trying to pin down exactly what it was that irked me so much about this book. I am trying, too, to separate out what was just irritation because I had higher expectations than was fair, and what legitimately did not agree with me.

It's not that I'm about to tear this book apart. I just can't do that, and I don't get any joy out of that sort of thing. Especially when this is a first novel, and the author is Canadian, and I wanted to like the book. Furthermore, Eldritch Manor has some really excellent things going for it, so let's talk about those first. There is a reason that this was chosen to be on the Forest of Reading nominees list for 2014, after all.

The concept? Is awesome. It was the reason my expectations were so high. How can one not be taken with the idea of a book where the main character is hired on as a housekeeper in a house where the inhabitants are retired mythical and fantastical creatures? And of course things will start to go wrong, and of course Willa, our heroine, will be called on to save the world, with a little help from her new elderly, crotchety, mythological friends. I love the idea of this book so much. I thought the cast of characters was creative, I thought the way the world worked made sense, I thought that the ideas and the setting worked. The world-building, albeit brief, was totally satisfying.

And yet... and yet. Something went wrong for me with this book, and if I had to pinpoint it I would say that I don't think the execution was up to the premise - for me as an adult. This is an important point, and I will get to why in a moment.

I think things went flat in a couple of places: the style of the writing didn't work for me, and that can be a very subjective thing, so this sometimes happens. But I also found that there were things packed in to the book that felt unnecessary, which meant that things that should have had more time (especially Willa's relationship with the sphinx Horace) missed out because we were spending time on other things that didn't need attention. Or else those things should have grabbed more attention. There was a family situation that could have meant quite a lot to Willa's character-building, and some of the other characters as well. It wasn't a surprise when it popped up right near the end of the book (I mean, in the last chapter) because there had been some foreshadowing. But it was extraneous to the story, or could have been if an editor had done something about it. It was dealt with so quickly and so ineffectively that it was a non sequitur.

Overall I felt that character development was fairly perfunctory and typecast. There just wasn't a lot there, and characters mean pretty much everything to me in a story. Action and dialogue was even a bit typecast, and that can bug me, especially where expressions are used that frequently appear in pop culture, but when actually read they make no sense.

All of this said, aside from the problem with the ending, which I don't think will be ignored by children either, I suspect the things that bugged me actually won't bother kids as much. The writing is simple - that isn't a dealbreaker for kids. The characters are quickly-drawn, but at least they are interesting - again, not going to bother kids. I ate up The Babysitters' Club books and Nancy Drew as a kid and I'd say this is at least as good as anything in either of those series, and way more imaginative. It's leaps and bounds ahead of the perennially popular Fairy books by Daisy Meadows that we can't keep on the shelves at the library.

And while I might occasionally roll my eyes at those Fairy books, I think there is a place for books that appeal more to kids than adults. Something about those simple storylines, the simple writing, and the action-filled plots with characters that are clear and easy to grasp, really appeal to kids even as they drive adults to distraction. Those are often the books that kids start to read all by themselves once they can read chapter books, and the process of reading them helps develop literacy and fluency. They are easy to read, and they are fun, and they are satisfying, and so kids want to read more. The process of decoding written language is already challenging enough for many kids without having to keep track of layers and complexity that the kind of children's books I love contain.

Sometimes the same kids who eat those up also love the more complex, more "literary" books written for kids, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they only want to read Nancy Drew. And you know what? That's okay. Maybe someday they will move on to things that are a little more complex, writing- and structure-wise. And if they don't, that's okay too. Lots of adults love James Patterson, or Julia Quinn, or Danielle Steel, and some of them won't read anything else either. At least reading is an enjoyable part of their life, and every book has value in one way or another.

So, in the end: not a book for me. But I do hope it finds its audience, and I think being nominated for the Silver Birch category of the Forest of Reading will help it do that, because its audience is kids, and should be. I wish the book and Kim Thompson all the best, and I hope she finds an editor who can help her tighten things up a bit -- there is potential here for some great children's books down the line.

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