Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Book Review Club - Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets
William Alexander
middle grade

It's been a while since I've really sunk by teeth into the craft of a book, partly because I listen to so many audio books and it really is a different experience. However, I read Goblin Secrets out loud to my eleven year-old. It was our evening reading book. I will readily admit that my craft feelers were more fine-tuned than when I read a book that hasn't won The National Book Award. Spoiler alert - my expectations are higher for award winners.

Very briefly, the story is about an orphaned boy, Rownie, living in a magical world that includes goblins, who were once humans who have changed, machines that use the hearts of anything from fish to humans as fuel, and mechanical creatures that are also part organic.

Rownie wants to find his brother, we discover somewhat into the story. He starts out the "grandchild" of a witch but runs away and joins a troupe of goblins, who, it turns out, are also looking for Rownie's brother. They eventually find him. He's been turned into a puppet, i.e. his heart has been removed and with it, his will. Rownie, however, saves his brother and keeps the river from flooding the city of Zombay.

This story is packed with creative imagination in a wholly invented world like nothing I've ever experienced before. For exactly that reason, I would have loved a little more world-building. I was left wondering about the shape and breadth of this particular world. Tolkien set the bar so high when it comes to world-building. In this book, world-building was more of a sketch. We are left with many incomplete ideas. How does a person become a goblin? Why is acting outlawed? How do the hearts fuel stuff? Who is the mayor? How did this world come to be? Why are the goblins looking for Rownie's brother? What are dust fish? How do they exist? Can you eat them? Are there other magical creatures, or just goblins? Why goblins?

Does it really matter?  My eleven year-old didn't worry about all this. She was perfectly content with the world as it stands.

Desire lines were there, but also a little under-developed. For instance, Graba craves power so she dislikes the goblins, who have their own kind of power. This could be developed more. As it stands, it's very archetypal. It works, but there isn't much meat there. This is typical of many desire lines, including Rownie's. He wants to find his brother, but that doesn't come out until a few chapters into the story, and as such doesn't feel like THE heart's desire of the book exactly.

Of course, as with any good story, weaknesses are easily forgiven if we're swept into the fictional dream and stay their voluntarily. I was and I did. This book deserves to be read not just because it sweeps the reader into that dream but because there is enough, both good and bad, crafting to make the writer think and learn.

For other great winter treats, slide over to Barrie Summy's website!


Sarah Laurence said...

I appreciate how you turn a critical eye on even books you enjoy. It's interesting that your daughter accepted this world without questioning too.

Ellen Booraem said...

Oh no! I'm 2/3 through this book right now, and I stopped reading when you told me the brother's fate, which I haven't found out yet. SPOILER ALERT!! :-D

I'll come back and read it when I've finished the book. I'm interested to see what you thought. (I'm loving it myself.)

Barrie said...

I always find it interesting to see which books my kids or their friends accept without question while I struggle with some part of it. And vice versa. For example, one of my kids thought the beginning of the first Harry Potter was so boring that he would've put it down had I not pushed him. Thanks for this review, Stacy. I think I'l try this book as a read-aloud as well. Or perhaps on tape in the car.

Ellen Booraem said...

Well, I've finished, and I think your comments are right on. It was a marvelous read, but the unanswered questions are a bit frustrating. I was shocked when I saw how close I was to the end and how many questions I still had.

BTW, I think Graba's feelings about goblins had to do with the relationshop between her and Semele. (trying not to give too much away.) I may have that backwards, though.

And Barrie's right--kids are far more flexible and subtle-minded than we are. Actually pretty impressive that the author was confident enough to let the details drift. The gaps didn't bother me while I was reading, and the marvels are truly outstanding.