Us and Them
By Cheryl Morgan
I donít often review YA books in Emerald City. Iím overwhelmed with review requests as it is, and YA is a useful line that can be drawn. But every so often I make an exception, and Iím making one here for Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier. There are several reasons for this. To start with Justine is a "mate" (technical Aussie term meaning "good friend") and a fellow cricket fanatic. Also lots of people in the industry have been very complimentary about the book. And perhaps most importantly it is a book that examines cultural differences between Australians and Americans. Like me, Larbalestier spends half of her life in North America and half of it elsewhere, so I was interested to see her take on the cultural issues.
There is, however, another rule about YA books I am breaking here. Normally when I review a YA book it is because it is something like Philip Pullman, which might be sold a YA but is really an adult book in disguise. Pullmanís book might have teenage characters, but they are the sort of teenagers that a rather bookish adult like Pullman might imagine. They are not the sort of people you find slouching around at the shopping mall of a weekend. Larbalestierís book, on the other hand, is a book about teenagers for teenagers. The only content for adults is in the jokes. This is not really my sort of thing, because I have trouble identifying with the characters. If I were to be unfortunate enough to contract Alzheimerís, the first part of my life Iíd want to forget is being a teenager. With that caveat in mind, hereís a review.
As you have probably guessed, Magic or Madness is a fantasy novel. Which makes it rather odd that the lead character is called Reason and is a math genius. But then Reeís mother didnít hold much with magic, and wanted to bring her daughter up as far away from it as possible. You see Grandma Esmerelda is a witch, and not a very nice one either. So Reeís mum (technical Aussie term meaning "mom") took some fairly extreme steps to keep her little girl safe. This involved fleeing from one Outback settlement to another, one step ahead of the authorities. Because, of course, Reeís mother is quite mad. Eventually the police and social services catch up with them, the mother is put in an asylum for safekeeping, and Ree is given over to her Grandmaís custody.
Naturally the first thing that Ree does is plan her escape. Esmerelda has an exceptionally nice house in Sydney, and has pots of money to shower on her runaway granddaughter. Thereís also the matter of Tom, the cute boy who lives next door, to consider. But Ree wants out of there, which is how come she opens the back door and steps out, expecting the sunny yard she can see from her bedroom window. And finds herself in New York in the middle of "winter" (technical Aussie term for a time when the sun isnít quite so hot and people play footie instead of cricket ó many Australians have never seen snow except on TV and in the movies; a New York winter is a serous shock to the Aussie system).
The rest of the book is given over to finding out more about Reeís history, about how magic works in Larbalestierís universe, and exactly who are the bad guys. Ree gets shown round Manhattan by her new best mate, Jay-Tee, a streetwise runaway who is clearly not as trustworthy as she pretends. Much cross-cultural confusion results.
My favorite bits of the book are when Tom finally makes it to New York and has to manage American restaurants by himself. The poor boy canít cope with the fact that when you order something you are immediately faced with a barrage of questions about how you want it prepared, and what you want with it. When Tom has finally got the waitress to leave him alone, the shifty looking woman dressed all in black at the next table starts on at him about how asking all these questions is an evil government conspiracy. Yep, thatís America all over.
So, Magic or Madness is indeed a fun book. While thereís not a lot of deep philosophy in it, it does have complexity of plot and an interesting background. Magic in Larbalestierís world is most definitely not an escapist panacea.
There will, of course, be sequels. We have to find out which boy Ree is finally going to end up with. Will it be the sensitive Tom, or Jay-Teeís handsome and athletic brother? I know who Iíd go for. Any boy who can make me dresses that look as if they were Vivienne Westwood or Thierry Mugler originals and isnít gay is pretty hot property, but you never know with Australians and their obsession with sport.
The bits I am really looking forward to, however, are those where Ree gets to introduce Jay-Tee to Sydney and the Outback. Next volume please, somebody. And a packet of Tim Tams.