The Ogress and the Orphans, by Kelly Barnhill*****

This book is not at all what I expected; it’s much better than that. My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin Young Readers for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

This lovely story is told in the second person omniscient, and we cannot tell, until the end, who the narrator is. Our setting is the sweet (fictitious) village of Stone-in-the-Glen, and it’s told in linear fashion. Because its telling is straightforward, with no changes in point of view or time period, and no heart-hammering suspense, it is ideal for bedtime reading. It’s marketed as a children’s book, and here I disagree, in part anyway. The vocabulary is too advanced for an early reader, but would serve well as a story to read aloud to students in upper elementary classes, or as a read-alone for the gifted child. There is no sexual content, drugs, or bad language.

Because I believed this was going to be a children’s book, I thought I’d whisk through it in no time and review it the same week I started, but I sensed immediately, once I’d begun, that this was not that kind of story. Its length, density of page and paragraph, and content call for a more leisurely pace, but also, it’s just too good to rush through. I am a sucker for excellent alliterative language (see what I did there?) and Barnhill is a champion in this regard. I found myself going back a page or two to reread, highlighting the best passages for no reason but my own pleasure.

The plot is easily summarized. The lovely little village is friendly and flourishing until the town library, which has magical powers, burns down. Without benefit of the library, villagers keep to themselves, and they become secretive and greedy. The mayor could help, but chooses not to do so. He’s a real piece of, um, work.

The orphanage in particular is in dire straits. They haven’t been getting their promised funding lately, and the place is starting to fall apart. The children are hungry. Were it not for the largesse of an anonymous donor, one that leaves big boxes of vegetables at the gate for them to find in the morning, they would starve.

The Ogress is their benefactor. We know this early on, so I don’t consider it a spoiler. However, due to the misconceptions of the villagers, which the mayor feeds shamelessly, the Ogress soon becomes a scapegoat. These two problems—local poverty, and the hostility toward the one among them that is different—form the basis of the story.

As to the allegory, which is dropped in midway through in a fairly heavy-handed manner, I am of two minds. On the one hand, my philosophy is similar to the author’s, and so I snicker when I see what she’s doing here. On the other hand, this is exactly the book one reaches for when one has had enough, enough, enough of current events and the outside world, and allegory becomes something of a distraction. When I see who the mayor represents, I start eyeing the other characters. Does the Ogress represent someone in the real world as well? What else am I missing? These musings are more likely to lodge themselves in the mind of a language arts teacher; I recognize that. But my preference would be to either turn the whole thing into a piece of political satire and own it, or to leave it alone and have a sweet story devoid of political content, one that readers on both ends of the political spectrum can enjoy—maybe even enjoy together.

These minor issues aside, I love this story. It’s my first taste of Barnhill’s writing, but it surely won’t be the last. Highly recommended.

The Memory Collectors, by Kim Neville***

2.5 stars, rounded upward.

I was truly excited to read this book; perhaps too much so. It’s not a bad novel, but not the crowning wonder that I was expecting. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review.

Ev lives in poverty, sorting through trash in hope of finding treasures that she can improve upon and sell. As the story unfolds, we are momentarily off-balance, learning about Ev and the setting primarily through context. We learn early on that Ev has a traumatic past—with the particulars doled out in dribs and drabs to create suspense—and that she has an unusual gift, that of feeling the powerful emotions experienced by the item’s former owner. She wears gloves to prevent herself from becoming overwhelmed, particularly by the negative feelings some objects project.

Harriet is an elderly woman with similar gifts, and she’s in search of an heir. When she and Ev collide over contested objects, she wants to hire Ev. Ev resists at first, but is eventually drawn in after carefully negotiating her terms. An important side character is Ev’s long-lost sister, Noemi, who pops back into Ev’s life unexpectedly. Noemi’s role here is to reveal the past events that have scarred her elder sister, as well as to motivate Ev to be successful and build a better life.

At the outset, I am impressed by the writing, and it looks like the hype is deserved, because I am immediately engaged. But as the story moves forward, it becomes slower, then slooower, then slooooower…and I realize that this is one more fantasy novel in which the one original aspect, the “stains” that reveal the character of an object to people like Ev and Harriet, is just about all the author is going to give us. Everything else, from the revelations about the past, to the relationship between the sisters, to the dynamics between the elder and younger sensitive women, to the problem posed by another gifted but malign person, to uh, everything, is sort of lackluster and tedious. The character development is shallow and barely there. I never become comfortably acquainted with the world in which these women exist. It’s as if the author has trotted out this one device—I’m trying hard not to call it a gimmick—and then figures her job is done.  There isn’t much else that I haven’t seen done much better by other writers. In the end, I tossed it on the DNF pile.

I read this story digitally, but I alternated it with the audio version, and am inclined to recommend the audio version slightly more to those that plan to read it. Initially I don’t like the way that the reader, Emily Woo Zeller, voices Noemi, using a chirpy, almost shrill voice, but after I have listened for a bit over an hour, I become accustomed to it and grow to regard the character with a fondness I don’t find for the other characters. Instead of perceiving her as shrill, I begin to think, “Oh, it’s okay; that’s just the way Noemi is.” Since I don’t fully believe any of the other characters, I have to give Zeller props for her performance.

This book is for sale now; get it free or cheap if you’re interested, but don’t shell out the full jacket price unless your pockets are deep ones.