Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Review: THE SECRET IN THE WOOD by S. L. Lipson

First Paragraph(s): Tears welled up in Sara’s big, green eyes as she gazed out her bedroom window at the tall pine tree grove. The trees—her trees—waved their branches to and fro, slowly, sadly. It looked as if they were waving goodbye. Home just wasn’t the same now that she was moving. 

She imagined the branches reaching out toward her. The soft pine needles stroked her coppery-red hair off her forehead, like a mother soothing her. The wind whistled through the branches, “Shh, shh, shh, t’sokay, t’sokay....”

In some ways, those two opening paragraphs tell the story of The Secret in the Wood. Not too many ways, of course, or S. L. Lipson wouldn't have written the full book:) But if you're looking for tips on writing a great opening, you could do worse than to take a page out of this book.

The first sentence presents immediate conflict because Sara's in tears. I'll wager readers will at least make it to the end of the page to find out why she's crying and by then most will be hooked. More, the well-written description of Sara's imagining branches reaching out to her will assure readers that we're in the hands of a capable word smith who's not going to let us down. Finally, the image of trees soothing a girl is pretty much a micro version of the full story, setting the tone, even if there are some important details yet to come.

Meet 10-year-old Sara Connor. She's one day going to give birth to the leader of the human resistance during "the rise of the machines." But for now she's in love with her room and terrified to lose it. And something strange and magical is hiding in her wooden wall. No, not a cyborge sent from the future to terminate her. Instead, a relatively even-tempered tree fairy:

Suddenly, she detected a slight movement on the wall. A bug? 
No, it wasn’t a movement on the wood, but rather, within the wood. Weird! A rippling movement—kind of like when she’d throw pebbles into puddles. A pattern of rings formed within the knot. It looked like a tiny, lovely woman’s face. The woman’s long-lashed eyes seemed to blink at her. 
Nah! Sara told herself. I must’ve just blinked my own eyes. That's it. Of course... 
But those long-lashed eyes grew rounder. They stared directly at Sara.

As is usually the case in middle grade land, the imaginary being that our child protagonist encounters is a proxy for her own id. Sara's got some issues to work out and like Elliott hashing out his parent's divorce with his alien pal, Sara's going to accept the changing nature of her life through the help of a tree fairy named Althea. Specifically, Sara has to accept she and her mother have to move from their home now that her father has died:

Mom had been very picky about everything being in its place when home-buyers visited. “Clutter makes rooms seem smaller, Sara,” was Mom’s favorite line these days. Secretly Sara imagined herself dumping all of her drawers onto the counters and floors. She would rather make the house look as small as possible to discourage anyone from buying it. But she knew a sale was important to Mom. With Dad gone, Mom couldn’t afford to keep this house anymore. “Oh Daddy,” Sara whispered to herself, looking in the bathroom mirror, “this was our house.” Sighing deeply, she moved the hand lotion, her bag of hairbands, and her toothpaste into the cupboard under the sink. 

If you don't feel for Sara, Esteemed Reader, you have no heart:) I liked Sara straight away and you will too. Soon she meets the boy who's going to be living in her room. Of course, she hates him, but before the novel's end she and Johnathan are working together along with Althea to a conclusion likely to warm your heart.

Of particular note is the way Althea's back-story mirrors Sara's own, making her the perfect proxy for this situation and this story:

 “No, you couldn’t. No one does.” She hugged her knees to her chest. 
“Then call me ‘No One’, because I truly do know. You see, I didn’t merely fall asleep and then suddenly awaken to find myself on the wall of your room. Actually, the last thing I recall was being in my tree, within my cozy grove, among my fairy friends. All of us were happy in our trees, all of us happy to be part of Moriah’s fairy kingdom.” Althea frowned and shut her eyes. “And the last voice I heard was King Moriah’s, shouting, ‘Flee, fairies, flee! The lumberjacks are here! Our homes are no longer ours! Remember what I told you and don’t look back! Flee...’ His voice was drowned out by a horrible whirring sound and a crash of wood. I’ll never forget it.” The lady’s face shook, shuddered, and then she continued, “Everyone fled for greener groves, I suppose. Everyone, that is, except me.”
“You mean you stayed while they were cutting down your forest? You stayed with your tree, alone?”
“Yes, Sara. I couldn’t bear to leave my comfortable home. I was, well, stubborn, I suppose. And foolish, for now I have no tree, only a slice of one nailed to a human family’s wall.” 

Originally, The Secret in the Wood was published as Knock on Wood, a print book sold with a set of magic sight glasses. When worn, the glasses revealed hidden details in the illustrations. In the ebook, The Secret in the Wood, readers need only tap their device to reveal the hidden details in each picture, which I quite enjoyed. At the end of the book is sheet music for "Dance of the Trees" as well as a link to S. L. Lipson's website to hear a recording of it. 

These types of innovations make me excited as an ebook reader and as an ebook writer. Gimmicks are rarely welcome, but hidden objects within an illustration are fun and appropriate to this book, which is very much about shifting one's perspective. I also pay extra to watch movies in 3D. It's fun and I'm looking forward to see what sorts of enhancements ebook writers continue to come up with. 
As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Secret in the Wood:

The girl in the glass looked fuzzy, like an old painting, her freckles hardly visible.

Magic had definitely arrived! 

“Friends can be found, but not recognized until a sharing of emotions takes place. Then we say we’ve made a new friend, when in fact, the friend had already been given to us. We are all like specks of dust, swirling around each other, bumping into each other, settling down together—all at the whim of a heavenly breeze.”
Althea chuckled like a brook on a summer day.
Time flies when you’re in fairyland!

“I know you told me that ‘amoré’ means ‘love’ in Italian. But what does it mean here—” she pointed at the song sheet—“when they say ‘when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amoré’? Why would love be like getting hit in the eye? And how could the moon hit your eye anyway?” 

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

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