Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book Review: The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

The Changeover:  A Supernatural Romance
Title:  The Changeover : A Supernatural Romance
Author:  Margaret Mahy
Publisher:  Margaret K. McElderry
Genre: YA
ISBN:  0689503032
From Goodreads: "When her little brother seems to become possessed by an evil spirit, fourteen-year-old Laura seeks the help of the strangely compelling older boy at school who she is convinced has supernatural powers."
From The Book Depository:  
"Carnegie medal-winning supernatural romance from Margaret Mahy. The face in the mirror. From the moment she saw it, Laura Chant knew that something dreadful was going to happen. It wasn't the first time she'd been forewarned. But never before had anything so terrible happened. The horrifyingly evil Carmody Braque touched and branded her little brother -- and now Jacko was very ill, getting steadily worse. There was only one way to save him. Laura had to change over: had to release her supernatural powers. And that meant joining forces with the extraordinary and enigmatic Sorenson Carlisle!"

Overall rating:  10/10 flowers
Buy this book:  The Book Depository | IndieBound | Amazon | AbeBooks
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How did it take me until 2010 to discover this wonderful book?!  Margaret Mahy's The Changeover was originally published in 1984, and somehow it did not appear on my book radar until twenty-six years later.  If you find yourself in a similar position, I'd highly recommend that you rectify the situation as soon as possible.  This book is overflowing with excellence.  From the perfectly described details of Laura Chant's everyday family life to her charmingly atypical romantic suitor to the threat of a truly sinister villain, The Changeover is a terrific coming-of-age story with a paranormal twist.  This book does not feel dated, and it quickly found its way onto my favorites shelf to be read again and again.  I am thankful to Kristin Cashore, Justine Larbalestier, and Sarah Rees Brennan for bringing Margaret Mahy to my attention when they each praised her books and/or characters on their blogs.  I don't know how Margaret Mahy remained under my radar for so long, but I am thrilled to have discovered her now, and I look forward to reading more of her books. 

What I Liked:
  • The beautiful and precise prose.  Even the mundane details of Laura's life are fascinating and lovely because every description is infused with personality.  From the teapot that screams as if it wishes to be put out of its misery to the suburban tract houses that all look as though they are cousins, if not siblings.  I read this book aloud to my husband & found myself stopping to re-read many passages just to enjoy the imagery.  This book is not bogged down by lengthy descriptive passages or filler.  Every word on the page is there to move the story forward or to actively enhance the atmosphere of a scene, and not a single word is wasted.
  • Everything about the characters feels authentic.  From the way Laura feels about her parents' divorce  to the way she interacts with her mother and younger brother.  There is nothing forced or contrived about a single line of dialogue, and the emotional undercurrent running between each of the characters feels absolutely genuine from start to finish.  It is difficult to describe how much I adored that.
  • Sorry.  He is not your standard romantic hero, but he has a quirky, self-assured charm that is all his own.  Socially awkward and notably conflicted, Sorenson Carlisle is a male witch who reads romance novels and somehow manages to be both overly confident and surprisingly vulnerable.  He is honest but not necessarily safe.  And he may have an impressive school transcript, but he still has a lot to learn when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  I've enjoyed a lot of 'broken boy' romantic heroes in various books over the years, but Sorry jumps off the page as completely unique.  I was thoroughly impressed by the way Margaret Mahy brought him to life with such an original voice, and I loved Sorry for his unfiltered honesty and his oddities.  He is not quite sure who he wants to become or how comfortable he is embracing his own humanity, but the closer he gets to Laura & the more he sees the possible consequences of losing touch with your humanity, the more he begins to open himself up to some new opportunities (even if those bring new frustrations along with them).
  • Laura!  As much as I adored Sorry for his flaws, I loved Laura even more for consistently calling him out on them!  She is both an "every-girl" character with many of the standard worries and insecurities of a typical fourteen year old, and a strong, confident young woman who boldly sets out to take her fate (and her brother's fate) into her own hands.  Laura grows up a lot over the course of the novel, taking several risks and making a number of difficult decisions.  Her motivations and choices never feel artificial or unrealistic, and even the paranormal changes are used to such excellent metaphorical effect that they feel totally natural & believable.  You'll find yourself relating to her and rooting for her from the very first page to the very last.
  • There is nothing fluffy about the romance in this book.  Laura and Sorry are frustrated & challenged by each other more than they swoon and sigh over each other, and that fits the characters and their situation perfectly.  I don't mean to imply that I dislike sigh-worthy, epically romantic love scenes in books.  In fact, I adore those scenes when they suit a particular story & set of characters.  In this case that wouldn't have suited the characters well at all, and I strongly respected the author's choice not to toss in a nonsensical fluff-fest.  Even Laura's mother's romantic entanglement has a decidedly practical & realistic nature to it.  And despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of fluff, I still found both relationships endearingly romantic and moving.  
  • The dark & remorseless villain, Carmody Braque. (<-- How great is that name?!)  Not only is he sly and frightening in the spookiest of ways, but he appears in a very commonplace setting, making him twice as terrifying.  His particular style of magical wickedness is definitely the stuff of nightmares as he literally devours Laura's young brother from afar.  Creepy with a capital "C"!
What I Wished:
  • I wish I'd stumbled across this book twenty years ago!  I would have loved this book as a tween/teen & it may have led me to discover the paranormal & urban fantasy sub-genre within YA literature long before I managed to find that section on my own.  
  • I don't think the subtitle: "A Supernatural Romance" is entirely accurate.  In my opinion, the romance, while lovely and an enjoyable subplot, is not the main theme of this novel.  This book is about a girl transitioning into young adult territory & evolving into a new version of herself.  Yes, there is a boy who helps that change along, but he is not the primary reason for the important choices Laura makes.  He is a fairly important companion along this part of her journey, but he is not the most compelling motivation propelling her forward.  So I think the subtitle is slightly misleading and may give readers expectations for this book that they will not find fulfilled.  However, the romantic elements of The Changeover are memorable and hopeful (in a very realistic way), so perhaps readers won't feel misled by the subtitle after all. 
I would highly recommend this book to all readers, and I would particularly recommend it to anyone who enjoys paranormal, fantasy, or urban fantasy novels set in a realistic, non-fantastical world.  Fans of Richard Peck's Blossom Culp books may like the way Margaret Mahy mixes magic with the common, no-frills world of an intelligent teenage girl.  Fans of Meghan Whalen Turner's The Queen's Thief series, may like Margaret Mahy's precise prose that is not at all condescending to its target audience of YA readers.  And fans of Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night may enjoy Margaret Mahy's imaginative imagery.  I was surprised and pleased by how much I loved this book, and I will be bumping Margaret Mahy's other novels up several notches on my "To-read" list because I enjoyed The Changeover so much. 

If you would like to learn more about Margaret Mahy and her books, please check out the Christchurch City Libraries' Margaret Mahy website or Fantastic Fiction's Margaret Mahy page.  


Cleverly Inked said...

I love "new" discoveries. Great review

Chachic said...

Oh you also just read this book this year! I'm glad we both discovered it then. :) It's so surprising that so much is packed in just one YA novel and it's not even that long. I agree with everything that you said in your review. Both Sorry and Laura changed for the better in the course of the book and I love how they influence each other. And the prose! I haven't read anything like it. It really is beautiful, I think we can even describe as sparse because every word and description counts.

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