Sunday, April 28, 2013

Book Review: The Skull of Truth

Title: The Skull of Truth
Author: Bruce Coville
Genre: Children's Middle Grade Reader, (Sub)Urban Fantasy


Charlie Eggleston, known as a liar to friends and family alike, is already having a bad day.  His beloved swamp will soon be paved over, he's being chased by bullies, and he's about to be latetor another uncomfortable family dinner.   But when he stumbles into Mr. Elive's magic shop and steals the Skull of Truth, things go from bad to worse.  The wise-cracking skull curses those around him into telling the truth--starting with Charlie!


The cover of the book promises a lot more magic and adventure than are actually in it.  Although the Skull of Truth is important as both a character and a catalyst, the bulk of the plot has to do with untangling a bunch of real-world issues, which include environmentalism versus job creation, the secrets families keep, childhood cancer, etc.  Most importantly, the book examines the many faces of honesty: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Bruce Coville does a great job of showing the complexity of feelings and never paints any issue as black-or-white, good-or-bad.  And yet all the problems are handled with deftness, maturity, and grace.

A child reading this review would probably conclude that the book is boring.  But that's not true.  I found it compelling, and I read it all the way through without putting it down once.  Most of it is clear, not overly wordy, with good characters, constant conflict, and a nicely tied-up ending.  I liked it.  But the fantasy was not as strong as expected, which was a slight let-down.  The very end got abstract.  The setting was murky, it was hard to see what was going on, and the allegory was pretty thick.  Overall, it was a solid book, but not the best Bruce Coville has to offer.

Rant (Spoiler Alert)

The first Bruce Coville book I ever read was The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed.  I think I got it as a present.  I remember that the title and the illustration did not particularly impress me.  I must have been around ten or so, old enough to start devouring chapter books on my own, but still young enough that my mom would read to me before bed.  Somehow, she chose this one and started to read it.

I was hooked after the first chapter.  That was unfortunate, because I kept asking for more and my mom kept falling asleep.  At last, I wrenched the book from her hands and finished it myself.  That same night, I think.  It taught me an important lesson: NEVER read books before bedtime.  You will not sleep!

After that, Bruce Coville became one of my favorite authors.  I read whatever books he wrote that I could get a hold of, but as these were the days before really took off, my selection was limited to what I could order on scholastic, what I could buy at Walden's or B. Dalton, and what I could dig up at the library.

Interestingly, I had never heard of the Skull of Truth until I happened upon it at the library bookshop, some twenty years later.  I volunteer at the bookstore every Thursday, which means I get first scan at the books.  When I saw it was Bruce Coville, I snatched it up.  This was partially out of nostalgia, partially because I wanted a book that was quick to read and satisfying.

It was that.  But I must say, the experience of reading Bruce Coville as a kid and the experience of reading him as an adult is very different.  When I was a child, reading was simple.  If the story was good, I kept reading.  If it was bad, I stopped reading.  Books were feelings, not thoughts.  I felt excited or I felt bored.

Now, two decades later, my mind has been so stuffed with education, I can't stop analyzing a story if I try.  The first thing I noticed was the set-up: swamp about to be destroyed--that would have to be stopped by the end of the book; bullies chasing Charlie--that provided the first tangible point of conflict; have to be home for dinner--that provides a deadline, imbues the story with a sense of urgency.

I also noticed a lot of "grown-up" issues being set up: the swamp being paved over to set up an industrial park, the uncle with a close roommate, the friend who had been sick for months and was now returning to school bald.  On the one hand, I felt in awe of Bruce Coville for handling such hot-button topics in a fantasy children's book.  On the other hand, the conflicts were starting to pile up and I had no idea how they'd be resolved.

Beautifully, as it turned out.  One, two, three, all the problems were confronted and resolved.  This was the point in which the analytical part of my brain shut off, and I just started to enjoy myself.  When the book ended, my overwhelming feeling was to sigh happily and marvel at the beautiful simplicity.

Simplicity.  Funny.  As an adult, I value the simple more than I ever did as a child.  As a child, simple would cause me to wrinkle my nose in disgust.  Simple meant predictable.  Simple with boring.  And, as a child, I would have never thought to call Bruce Coville's books simple.  Because, to a child, they're not simple.  To a child, they're complex.

A paradox.  Perhaps.

The points of conflicts, the themes, the underlying emotions are not simple.  But how they're presented and how they're dealt with contain notes of grace.  Little time is wasted on unnecessary worry or angst.  The bad thing happens, the character reacts.  The solution is simple and oft times symbolic, creating maximum impact for the least amount of fuss.  As soon as the issue is resolved, the character moves on.

For example, Charlie's friend Gilbert, who has clearly been undergoing chemotherapy, arrives at school bald.  Gilbert asks Charlie how he looks.  Charlie, under the truth-curse, replies, "I think it looks totally doofy.  And I hope to god it never happens to me."  Gilbert is hurt.  The children ostracize Charlie, the adults guilt him.

Charlie gets angry with the skull and feels guilty and uncertain, but knows he has to do something.  He consults with wise adults.  He apologizes to Gilbert.  As he talks to him and starts to empathize, he comes up with an idea.  Charlie shaves his head.  He saves his friendship with Gilbert.  Others shave their heads to show their support.  The story moves on.

Earlier this week, I read in Tia Nevitt's blog about how reading different genres can help writers work on different elements of their craft.  For instance, fantasy teaches world-building, mystery teaches plot, romance teaches visceral pov, etc.  Though not listed, I believe that children's literature teaches simplicity.

Simplicity, I believe, is something that fantasy writers in particular should work on.  And yes, I do include myself in that category.  My automatic instinct is to make things more and more complicated, believing somehow that it makes the story more interesting.  It is only lately that I've begun to look hard at the benefits of doing a simple thing really well.  It's frightening because without all that razzle-dazzle noise, you no longer have a means of distracting the audience.

Either it's interesting or boring.

Anyway, this rant has gotten very personal, but let me return to the Skull of Truth and point out a few glaring problems, which, while they don't really bug me that much, I do feel inclined to point out.  First of all, there's a lot of "something wicked this way comes" foreshadowing at the start of the book.  The skull all but shivers at the coming doom and the shopkeeper alludes to a mysterious danger.  As it turns out, all this comes to nothing.  And I do mean nothing.

The true climax of the book is the city meeting over the swamp.  That has it all: cunning plots, the gathering of allies, twists, acts of courage, confrontation, and, as to be expected, the revelation of truth.  After that, it's all down-hill.  The resolution of the skull is pure anti-climax.  The author basically uses an allegorical character to expound on the nature of truth.  It's surprisingly abstract and also really hard to visualize.  If not for the illustration, I'm pretty sure I'd have no idea what was going on.

That aside, I really did enjoy the book.  It made me feel refreshed and thoughtful, as a good book should.  I may criticize books, but I always tip my hat when I come across authors who can do what I still aspire to.  So I tip my hat to Bruce Coville.  And I hope one day, I'll be able to master the paradox of complexity and simplicity as deftly as he does.

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