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Book: The Book of Lost Things

July 26, 2009

I picked this up on a whim at the library and wasn’t sure if I would like it or not. I don’t know anything about John Connolly, but I love this cover, and it was about the magic of books, so I thought, how bad could it be?

A wonderful surprise: not bad at all! In fact, quite good.

A little difficult to summarize; however, I’ll try: A young English boy, around the time of WWI, loses his beloved mother to cancer. She was a wonderful mother, always talking to him about the magic of reading and stories, and how stories want to be read. After she dies, his father quickly remarries and has another baby with his new wife. David, the boy, resents this new family and becomes the victim of a series of ‘fits’ — he blacks out and has terrible nightmares during these blackouts. Soon, he starts to hear his books whispering to him… and has visions of the evil Crooked Man encroaching on his family, especially his baby brother, Georgie.

Soon David is lured into the Crooked Man’s world… through the hollow tree stump in the back garden, another world lives, governed (it seems) by stories, and a feeble old king. David longs to return home, but quickly becomes part of this new world’s story, as he fights his way through myriad retellings of fairy tales, to get to the king. The king, it is said, has a Book Of Lost Things, which he consults for wisdom. Surely he can help David get home.

I can’t say too much more because part of the sparkle of this book is the discovery of the fairytales along the way. And when I say fairy tales, I don’t mean Disney. I mean Grimm’s Grimmest. I mean nasty wolves and grisly enchanted castles and harpies and trolls who would love nothing more than to spear you and eat you alive. I was continually (albeit mildly) shocked by the violence and grisliness in this book — no Disneyfication at all. Which I appreciated. I hate prettified fairy tales.

One of my favorite parts was when David meets up with the seven Dwarves, who are being tormented by Snow White. Turns out, it was the dwarves who tried to kill Snow White, and attempted to frame the wicked stepmother. After a court trial, it was determined that their punishment would be to serve Snow White forever. And this is a pretty nasty punishment, because whatever charms Snow White used to have are now long gone. He stays with them a night, and then must continue on his journey.

“He had quite liked the dwarves. He often had no idea what they were talking about, but for a group of homicidal, class-obsessed small people, they were really rather good fun.”

In the end, David must outwit The Crooked Man and escape a terrible bargain. How he does it (and how he outwits many of the villains he meets along the way) make him a great hero in the best tradition of fairy-tale heroes.

It was really fun to recognize many of my favorite tales, retold in this dark but funny book. The Crooked Man’s defeat is very satisfying (and is a graphic and slightly horrifying page out of one of my favorite tales, Rumplestiltskin).

The book was meandering and mysterious, but a fun journey and quite thoughtful. I loved the message about how everything in the world is contained in books, and that they want to be read and loved. Stories become a part of us and a very important part, at that.

Not all stories have happy endings. In fact, most don’t. But we can be the hero of our own story and use our bag of tricks as needed. Isn’t having an interesting story ultimately more fun, anyway?b

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