Friday, July 11, 2008

Strangers in a very strange land

There are three girls who live on Gumm Street in the picturesque town of Sherbet: Franny, Pru and Cat. Cat appears to sense the paranormal, while Pru is timid, her nose perpetually stuck in a book (and she has more safety sips than Officer Buckle), and Franny is daring and adventurous, an admirer of the great explorers. They're the same age and have lived there all their lives, but they are most definitely not friends. Ivy and her mother move into the creepy, run-down house on Gumm Street, and the unexpected arrival of a piano at their new house on moving day prompts Ivy to begin piano lessons with Mr. Staccato, a nearby neighbor.

Ivy is hoping that her move to Sherbet will make her luck change, but that doesn't happen. She really didn't think it would, because ever since the day her father disappeared and a mirror broke, she's been plagued by bad luck. She has been jinxed. When Cat sees her at school, she catches glimpses of something dark and toothy that oozes in and out of Ivy's shadow - she thinks it is part of Ivy, not realizing it's actually the jinx.

Events conspire to throw the four girls together, however (or perhaps it was the wish that Ivy made when she threw a coin in the wishing well at school). Before they know it, their lives have become entangled in events involving a nasty neighbor named Cha-Cha, a pair of talking dogs named Fred and Ginger, ruby red slippers, and backwards tidal waves. They are transported to the land of SPOZ, where things are not fun at all, and they are going to have to work together, as difficult as that may be, in order to find a way not only to return home, but to keep a special pair of shoes out of the clutches of Cha-Cha Staccato, who bears a striking resemblance to a certain wicked witch.

I listened to the audio version of this book, but later, when I took a look at at the novel itself, I must say I found myself regretting my choice. The illustrations, also done by Primavera, are whimsical and a delightful addition to the text. I did enjoy Colleen Delaney's narration - she did a great job differentiating among the voices of the different girls, and also came up some wonderfully evil voices for the antagonists. But the pictures make a big difference.

My girls and I are fans of Elise Primavera's Auntie Claus and its sequel, and we read them every holiday season, so when I saw this, her first novel, I was excited to read it. I enjoyed it, although the adult reader in me found it a bit too over the top at times. When every element in the book - the town (a bit of a Camelot place, only rains at night, etc.), the characters' names (Cat Lemonjello, Mr. Staccato the piano teacher, Cha-Cha, Bling-Bling, etc.), - is clearly fantastical, and the characters are doing fantastical things, going fantastical places, where things happen that are constantly incredibly coincidental, it becomes a bit too much.

Even humorous fantasy novels need an anchor of reality, at least as far as I'm concerned. Otherwise they risk becoming so very unbelievable that the story ceases to work. It is so clearly contrived that it loses its sense of what's truly at stake, and the author's hand is so evident as it manipulates characters and events that the tension disappears, as well as sympathy for the characters, who simply don't seem that real. This book occasionally crossed that line for me, but I don't know that younger readers would have that same issue. Also, it seemed to me as I flipped through the actual book, the pictures lend an additional sense of humor to the text that was lacking (to me) in the audiobook, so had I read the actual book, I might have felt differently. The artwork reminded me of Quentin Blake's illustrations in Roald Dahl's children's books.

This is a great choice for readers who find page after page of text a bit daunting, but who are not put off by long books (this one has nearly 450 pages), and particularly for readers who are fans of the Oz series. Those who have only seen the film will appreciate the connections, but readers of the books will be the most rewarded. The novel has a lot of kid appeal; it's a madcap adventure as well as a touching story about friendship.

The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera; narrated by Colleen Delany (Landmark Audiobooks, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
My Bookwyrm (possible spoilers)


  1. Well this sounds wonderful! You add so many books to my tbr, I don't know when I'll ever get to read them all. You always find the most interesting juvenile fantasy that I never see reviewed anywhere else. Or have even heard of half the time.

  2. I had picked this up in the store the other day - briefly - and then put it down because I was already carrying 5 other books... but after reading this review I think it might end up in my pile 'o books my next trip to the store.

    (Even though I am addicted to owning the books I read, it would be lovely if I had a library with a decent English book section - or you know, an English section at all. One of the many downsides to living in the Province of Quebec... it would help me with actually reading books I am not 100% sure about and I don't want to buy them just in case.)

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Nicola! I had never even heard of this one, either - it happened to be right next to a book I was looking for, and it caught my eye! It's fun when that kind of thing happens.

    Cat - it's hard to make those decisions, isn't it?! Now that I work in a library I've become very picky about which books I buy. It is too bad you don't have more opportunities to "test drive" them.

  4. Heh---love those names! Sounds like it's trying to follow in the footsteps of books like Lemony Snickett. But you're right, it's tough to get just the right surreal note that makes it all seem... oddly real.

  5. AnonymousJuly 15, 2008

    A neighbor named Cha-Cha Staccato? LOL! Thanks for the tip on the illustrations. I've been listening to audio books lately, so I might have missed out on the text version, too.

    Oh. And...

    Need something to write about? Then TAG! Here’s the Unspectacular Quirks meme.

    The Rules:
    •Link the person(s) who tagged you.
    •Mention the rules on your blog.
    •Tell about 6 unspectacular quirks of yours.
    •Tag 6 fellow bloggers by linking them.
    •Leave a comment on each of the tagged blogger’s blogs letting them know they’ve been tagged.

    Note: There’s absolutely no pressure to play. Especially if you're busy reading or making memories with the kids. *grin*

  6. Heather - yes, you put it very nicely! I'm glad you got what I was trying to say.

    Rachael - thanks for tagging me - that sounds like fun!


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