Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book Review - Charis Cotter's The Swallow

The Swallow by Charis Cotter
Published by: Tundra Books
Publication Date: September 9th, 2014
Format: Kindle, 322 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Polly and Rose live next door to each other. Polly's house is too full of people and her macabre tastes make her long to see a different kind of person, one who is no longer alive, ie, a ghost. Rose's house is the opposite of Polly's and is always empty and Rose has the dubious ability to see ghosts. The two soon strike up an unlikely friendship and Polly is right jealous of Rose's "gift." Yet maybe there's a reason she can see ghosts? There's a tombstone behind their houses with Rose's name on it... perhaps Rose herself is a ghost? One thing is clear, there is something strange going on and Polly thinks that the two of them need to get to the bottom of the spooky goings on; because one of them might be a ghost.

If you've ever thought, wow there really needs to be a middle grade version of The Sixth Sense set in 1960s Toronto, then I have good news for you! If on the other hand you're looking for a story that isn't predictable like, oh, anything ever done by M. Night Shyamalan, look elsewhere. The main problem with The Swallow is that everything is so obvious. It's not like there was one of two things that surprised me. Oh no. Every. Single. Thing. Was. Expected. It's like Cotter has no ability to dissemble. She can't hide her story structure, and she certainly can't hide her big reveals. From the second Polly went into her attic I knew that there'd be a secret passage, because I'd read C. S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. Yeah, you didn't do a good job of hiding where that attic came from Cotter, much like everything else.

But as to each reveal, they were delivered exactly when you'd expect it. There was no flow to this story, no chance for surprises. It felt as if Cotter sat down and wrote the most rigid structure she could to tell her story, with each reveal carefully placed, and when she went from outline to prose not one thing was allowed to vary from that outline. I felt at times as if the book was more a rigid structure of steal that had words around it then an actual narrative. You could feel the story gripping the spine trying to be a real book. A good author transports us and makes us not see the craft behind the work. Cotter pulled back the curtain on the wizard and showed us that writing isn't magic, it's labor intensive, and not just for her, but for us as readers as well. The only positive that can be said for this book is that it was a short read so the pain was quickly over.

Though what is most aggravating to me is that this could have been a unique story! We have the 1960s, we have the ghostly aunt/doppelganger, vintage shoes, creepy pictures of Rose and Winifred dressed alike, and yet it felt like it could be happening right now because none of these interesting aspects are delved into or exploited for the benefit of the story! Instead we get two girls, Polly and Rose, who are just as annoying and whiny as any kid today with no sense given to us readers of how they fit into their time to better explore the sixties. They are completely unlikable in the beginning, and even if you grudgingly like them a little later, the jeopardy they get placed in is so badly contrived that they are never able to rise up and save the book. In a true sign that shows how utterly commonplace everything about the book is, the girl's voices are basically the same. If it weren't for their different situations and the little label saying who's head we're in, I doubt you could tell which girl was which.

As for the ghosts. Well, I have problems with them. First, let's take the ghosts as a whole, and I won't talk about how thick Rose is, we'll just accept that as a given. The ghosts seem to have been given stupid characteristics, like the ability to eat and touch so that we wouldn't know that Polly was dead all along. Oops, I hope you hadn't planned on reading this book, because yeah, spoilers! Though with Cotter's writing if she'd been allowed to write the book's blurb, well, she would have signaled you into that twist in just those few short sentences. Since when can ghosts eat? Like seriously, I think this would be the number one thing on my "things ghosts can't do list." Haunt, yeah, move objects, yeah, give me nightmares, yeah, eat my food, NO! Also more specifically, Winifred is like the worst developed ghost ever. She's angry and crazy and remorseful and a loving sister? Yes, people can be a cornucopia of different personality traits, but, you know what? It has to be explained. Just having her go from crazy to contrite, it doesn't work.

But what I really want to know is was this book a teaching moment? So many of the reviews and blurbs talk about how this book will help kids with concepts like grief and acceptance. If this book was written to tell a rigidly plotted story and it just happened to help with grief and acceptance, well, I'm ok with that. On the other hand, if this book was written just to teach kids about these concepts? NO! I am not a fan of the "teaching moment." I want learning to be a byproduct of reading not the be all end all. Plus, when did everything have to be made "improving" for children? All literature had to teach them lessons. All toys had to be educational. WTF people! How about literature is there to teach kids the joy of reading? And how about toys being there to grow their imagination? I loved toys but I was slow to books. If I had read this book as a kid, it would have put me even more off reading, it's middle grade meh.


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