RSS: RSS Feed Icon


Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank is without a doubt one of the more unusual books I have read in a long time. Described as "an essay concerning the giant squid and it's first photographer" it is, in my mind, first and foremost a writer's book. (Not that the natural history isn't fascinating.) It's about a writer (Frank) obsessed with a Victorian era naturalist and photographer (Harvey Moses) who was obsessed with the Giant Squid which he famously photographed in Newfoundland in 1874. There is also much here about humanity's obsession with the Giant Squid and the vast amount of mythology, literature and more that has developed around this still mysterious creature.

One of the most successful aspects of Preparing the Ghost is Frank's authorial voice--he is a key component to this surprisingly personal story and as much as it is about the life of a man in Newfoundland from more than a century ago, it is also, deeply, about Matthew Gavin Frank. On more than one occasion he veers into his own past trying to mine it perhaps for reasons why he has succumbed to this obsession. Standing in front of Moses's home, (privately owned) knocking on the door yet again and hoping for a glimpse of the bathroom where the squid was draped and photographed, Frank can't explain why he is very desperate to get inside. He keeps knocking, he keeps returning, he keeps hoping for a glimpse of where history was made and he knows enough to know that this stubborn persistence is part of the story he is telling and, written well, it is as compelling as every other aspect of the tale.

Preparing the Ghost reminded me a bit of Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. Very famously, that book is about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence and in some significant ways Preparing the Ghost is about not writing a book about the Giant Squid. Just as Dyer does write somewhat about Lawrence, so does Frank write about the squid. But there is also much more here about Newfoundland and houses and marriage and family and leaving home and traveling far and fishing and telling stories and lying while taking stories, (like confusion over who the fishermen were who caught the squid), and, of course, it is about how something like a squid could spawn stories that grew into myths and even now, has sparked a book about all of that.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book due in no small matter, I'm sure, to the fact that I've long been fascinated by the Giant Squid. I loved how Frank wrote around and about his subject and thoroughly enjoyed his appreciation of history. It's an odd little book in some respects--the narrative truly jumps all over the place--but Dyer's book is odd as well and what lifts both of these titles is the enormous curiosity and smarts of the authors. They are candid about their obsessions and frustrations and persevered to create something unique to literature. I learned a lot about the Giant Squid while reading Preparing the Ghost but even more so, I learned about writing. Highly recommended.

The graphic novel This One Summer by cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki is one of those books that really requires a teen sensibility to fully appreciate. Adults can certainly read it (and enjoy it) but I think if you are a 12 or 14 year old (girl especially) then This One Summer would have special appeal.

The set-up echoes the plots of many other summer novels from the past: Rose and her parents arrive at their cabin in Awago Beach for their annual vacation. Windy and her mother and grandmother are nearby, just as they are every year. Rose and Windy are set for some familiar hijinks: hanging out at the beach, bonfires and picnics, bike rides and, this year, renting some classic horror movies from the local store and getting the crap scared out of them them while their parents are none-the-wiser.

There are some serious undercurrents however--Rose's parents are in a troubled marriage and the source of their conflict, which plays out in dozens of little tense-filled moments throughout the book, is an ongoing object of concern for Rose. Also, she develops a small crush on the high school boy who works at the store and his turbulent relationship with a local girl becomes something she and Windy study with great interest. How couples work, or don't work--the whole concept of romantic love--is the mystery that unfolds for Rose as the summer continues. Windy is a little younger and for her it is mostly a game to watch but for Rose, there is a wistfulness that anyone who survived middle school will recognize. She pines for something that she is not yet old enough to understand. (This is pretty much everything you need to know about middle school.)

This One Summer isn't a sweet story though. The girls are pretty typical girls. They sling a few bad words around, testing them out for effect, and they are all about noticing the older teens, what they have, what they do, how they interact. The girls listen for everything and gather information on sex and flirting, pondering it like miniature Jane Goodalls in the wild. This is where reviewers really and truly must channel their inner teen to appreciate the book and understand how important and common these interactions are and how brilliantly the author and illustrator nail the essence of teenage girl.

[Momentary aside--I can still tell you the names of the first girl and boy in my 6th grade class to make out. I can't tell you much else I learned that year but Gary & Leighann, those two, (and the drama their kissing brought to a hundred lunchtime conversations when I was 12), I will never forget.]

I will be very surprised if This One Summer is not challenged at some point. There are parents who will not be happy to see the language or the sexual suggestions that Rose & Windy spy on. And I'm also sure there are reviewers who will say that not enough happens in this story or that the events are too melodramatic. For me though, it all rang as spectacularly authentic. Teenagers sit around and talk about each A LOT. They flirt, they fall in and out of relationships and sometimes things move far too quickly. Younger teens study the big kids, they follow, they stare, they spend hours talking about what they see. Not a lot happens in This One Summer but it is about as true to real life for most kids that you could hope to find.

That's why it's going to get challenged, and also, why so many teenagers, (again, girls especially), are going to read it again and again.

Hallie Michaels first appeared in Deep Down as an Afghanistan vet who returned home to South Dakota after the unexplained death of her sister. Hallie was unusual not in that she had been injured while serving in the US Army but because she actually died--for 7 minutes--and came back. In South Dakota she found her father, a childhood friend and an attractive man in the person of Deputy Boyd Davies. She also found out that her sister shouldn't be dead, that there were mysterious forces at work in her hometown and magic was in the air.

Oh, and Hallie was in the middle of everything.

In Wide Open the story continued with the character of Death and the thin line between here and there and Hallie's precarious position as someone once dead putting her at extreme risk. There was also a lot about the weather (really) and Boyd's ex-wife, and plain old murder.

Now, in the final book in the trilogy, Strange Country, a very old mystery surfaces and Hallie and Boyd (and the sheriff's office) must investigate. There are still lingering remnants of magic, especially around Hallie's ranch, and the couple is entirely comfortable with the fallout from Wide Open. (This is where I tell you that you really have to read these books in order.)

But initially, with a murder by bullet, it seems like Strange Country won't be as much rural fantasy as police procedural (albeit with a few supernatural twists). But then Boyd starts following clues and making discoveries and before you know it there is a discussion about going to see Death, threats from the other side and lots of bad feelings (as in "I've got a bad feeling about this").

By Strange Country readers know Hallie well and they trust her. We like her because she is smart and thoughtful and not afraid to say she is sick and tired of the crazy that her life has become but still determined to do what she has to do to get stuff sorted out. Her relationship with Boyd has matured as has her friendship with gal pal Brett. Her father is only a whisper of a character in this outing (which is a shame) but there are appearances by several residents from town and the sheriff's department never disappoints. in fact we have so much invested in Hallie and Boyd and crew that the stakes seem much higher now--we really don't want anything to happen to anybody.

Yeah. We're going to get hurt. (Although I will say that it's okay to love all the horses and the dogs as none of them die.)

The Hallie Michaels series is not terrifying nor edge-of-the-seat-thrilling and I feel like I'm underselling it by simply saying that it is solidly entertaining. But these are good books--enjoyable books. I like the characters, I like the setting and I like watching the plots unfold. Hallie became a friend very quickly and that is cemented by the time we get to the end of book 3. We rarely see urban fantasy in the west, let alone South Dakota (thus the rural fantasy tag here) and I welcome it. I hope Coates returns to West Prairie City at some point in the future and gives us more of Hallie and Boyd (and Maker and the rest). She has created something that hits all the marks with these books and I'm sorry to have turned the last page.