Review of the Day: The Book of Story Beginnings
I've a rotten habit of wanting to pick up every particularly thick fantasy book I see. Sometimes this works to my advantage and sometimes it really really doesn't. This was one of my nicer discoveries though I still had some qualms about it.
I can't tell you how nice it is to pick up a fantasy book of some sort and find that it does NOT say something along the lines of "Part One" or "The First In a Series" or "Book One In the [enter name here] trilogy". For some reason children's book publishers can't even conceive of a worthwhile children's book without wanting to know that there will be at least two more continuing stories in this new "epic". Credit both author Kristin Kladstrup and Candlewick Press then for writing a book that stands perfectly well on its own without relying on an overblown, "To Be Continued" note on its final page. None of this is to say that "The Book of Story Beginnings" may not have a sequel or two to its name someday. But should that happen it'll have to be because people wanted the characters to continue. Not because there's some great overwhelming mystery that requires some 1,000 pages plus to solve it. This is Kladstrup's first novel and as such it's fine. Standing at its own not-sneezable 360 pages some judicious editing would not have been out of place lengthwise. Still, it has its charms and may entice a readership of its own in the future.
Lucy Martin has just found out that she and her family will be moving far far away from everything she's ever known and loved to go live in a little farmhouse in the middle of the country. At first she is less than pleased. Who wants to live next to a field of corn? But the house has a history that fascinates the girl. In 1914 Lucy's Great-aunt Lavonne had a brother by the name of Oscar. One night Lavonne woke up to find that her farmland was buried under a great vast sea and that Oscar was sailing away in a tiny rowboat. Though no one ever believed her story, Lavonne was always convinced that something magical had happened to her brother and she spent her life trying to figure out where he was. Now Lavonne is dead and has left Lucy's family her house and all the clues regarding Oscar's disappearance. But it isn't until Lucy finds a little book called, "The Book of Story Beginnings" that things start to make sense. For you see, every story you begin in the book comes true in the real world. If you wrote a story about a king who loved cats and a queen who loved birds you might find yourself trapped on an island with them. If you wrote a story about a sailing ship full of orphans, you might very well meet them on the high seas. And if you're looking for your long-long Great Uncle, you'd do well to read the story he began and find out what happens when the story you create becomes the story you're forced to live.
Kladstrup is very good at going into the nature of what a story is and how authors must sometimes feel when their characters take on lives of their own. What makes a good piece of fiction? Why does one beginning to a story work better than another? "Story Beginnings" is a wonderful book for any kid who has ever toyed with the idea of becoming a writer. It takes the notion of thinking up magical worlds to its logical extreme. Unfortunately Kladstrup seems to be reining in her imagination at times. The imaginings that Oscar and Lucy come up with, like a king who loves cats and a queen who loves birds, aren't embellished enough when our heroes actually meet them. We have to deal with Oscar shocked that his written world is as detailed and elaborate as it is, but the problem with that is that the world isn't actually all that embellished. Kladstrup is good at characters and plots and themes, but she's not so hot on details. So while it's interesting to think about how real a fictional world that you yourself have created is, "Story Beginnings" kind of fails to bring it all home. The convenience of the magical objects in this book also strains credulity just a tad. For example, apparently Great-aunt Lavonne was able to construct everything from transforming potions to a traveling talisman in her laboratory. These objects work without a glitch but were apparently never used by Lavonne herself to find her long-lost brother. Hunhuna?
None of this is to say the the book isn't a good read, of course. Some people may find an element here or there familiar. The idea of a king surrounded by cats is not entirely new. Just off the top of my head I can say that the Red King in the "Charlie Bone" books by Jenny Nimmo is always followed by three kitties of his own. And the book that "Story Beginnings" will find itself compared to the most often will undoubtedly be Cornelia Funke's "Inkheart". In both stories, books take on a life of their own and become real when mixed with a little magic on the side. But "The Book of Story Beginnings" is obviously its own beast. Actually, the idea of a girl moving into the country where she finds magical occurrences is strikingly similar to fellow first-time author Barb Ulllman's, "The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood". The difference is that while Ullman understands the beauty of being concise, Kladstrup is far more inclined to slow her action down. "Story Beginnings" has a bit of a problem with pacing. It'll jump from scene to scene one moment and then meander about for pages at a time. I have very little doubt that as Kladstrup continues to write she'll produce some books that really knock the socks off her readership. Here's hoping they'll just be a little shorter as well.