GATHERING BLUE. By Lois Lowry. Bloomsbury Children's Books, pound;5.99
THE STOLEN. By Alex Shearer. Macmillan Children's Books, pound;9.99
Characters confront the limitations on their lives in these stories for teenagers reviewed by Nicola Robinson
The Hansen women have always flown at night, even in bad weather... Twice around the meadow or once over the ridge to clear our heads before settling in for the evening." Got your attention? Rita Murphy's first novel, Night Flying, is like that: hard to resist. US reviewers have been using words such as "enchanting" and "magical" and I would add "charming".
The Hansens - 15-year-old Georgia, her mother, two aunts and grandmother - live in rural Vermont, bound by Grandmother's iron-fisted rules. They can all fly - literally leap into the air and fly - high above the earth. But if they break one rule, they are banished from the family. As Georgia approaches her first solo flight, her mysterious and long-banished third aunt Carmen flies in (self-powered) from California and soon Georgia herself breaks the rules.
It's a seductive story but I fought against it at first. The narrator, Georgia, has a disingenuous folksy voice, matter-of-fact about everything from the dangers of birds (collisions) to eavesdropping to the cost of a handsewn model uterus. And her statements about truth and freedom come dangerously close to sounding down-home hokey.
But the narrative has a teasing, jigsaw-puzzle quality so that the reader needs to stick around to fill in the pieces. And, again, it is charming. This is a world where meadowlarks whistle in dogwood trees, people smell of lavender and woodsmoke, and say things like "Ain't none of my business no more, honey." No mobile phones, no TV, no motorways. It's a dream of a place, and readers will enjoy going there although, like most dreams, it may not be remembered for long.
The world of Lois Lowry's Gathering Blue is more sinister. It's a low-tech, post-apocalyptic society in which malformed or damaged people are left to die. Kira, the protagonist, "knew no one who would be willing to soothe or comfort or aid a grievously wounded being. Or who would know how". This is a big problem for Kira, born with a twisted leg but saved by her exceptional skill at weaving and in the care of her village's guardians. But she longs to work on her own designs, rather than her assigned tasks, worries over strange deaths and overheard late-night sobbing, and begins to wonder if she and her fellow artists are in care or captivity.
Lois Lowry's writing is always excellent, although I am at odds with her vision in this book of the artist's power to change society. The narrative is pacy and it leaves many questions unanswered. Will there be freedom for the artists? Will it come about with or without violence? Will wrong-doers be punished? Is there a sequel waiting in the wings?
The Stolen, by Alex Shearer, is full of material with potential. Carly befriends Meredith, an orphan living with her grandmother, Grace. But she discovers that, through trickery and witchcraft, Meredith and Grace have swapped souls: Meredith has an ancient soul in a child's body, while Grace has a child's soul, unwillingly trapped in an arthritic, weak-hearted body. Carly tries to help, only to find that she herself is ensnared.
The good points are Shearer's empathetic depiction of the potential discomforts and frustrations of old age, his acute observations and droll-as-ever one-liners. But it needed a further draft - a cut here, expansion there, clearer voice differentiation, fewer convenient but unconvincing leaps of logic.
I left this book disappointed, because I wanted what Shearer is capable of: a book as tight and funny and touching as he made The Great Blue Yonder.