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Saturday, February 23rd, 2008
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by Joanne Harris

Young at Heart?

A review by Danielle Marshall

One of the enduring paradigms in publishing is the categorization of a book to focus publicity and marketing efforts and give booksellers a clear spot to shelve it. What is frustrating about this inevitable classification is that often a book goes undiscovered by an audience that would most certainly appreciate it. While many titles cross over genre and age lines (Harry Potter, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series come to mind), many more great books never get the recognition and larger readership they deserve. Never is this dilemma more evident then when a usually "adult" writer pens a book specifically written for children, or vice-versa. Far from seeking out a children's title written by a favorite author, readers seem to think that that the book is not intended for them.

Novelist of Chocolat fame, Joanne Harris is a fine storyteller. Runemarks, published this year by Knopf, is her first novel for kids; some passages may be too disturbing for very young children, but what makes this novel special and appealing to readers young and old is its retelling of classic Norse tales, its gifted prose and captivating dialogue. Not to mention it's a fantasy novel that concludes in one volume!

Maddy Smith is born with a "ruinmark," the ancient marking of special magical powers, but has been ostracized and despised by her local townsfolk, who suspect she is a witch. The setting is five hundred years after Ragnarók, the mythical last battle when all the Norse gods were defeated and imagination and magic are outlawed. Maddy has no idea how much she is capable of or how to utilize her strange secret powers, until she meets a teacher -- a mysterious traveler called One-Eye -- who begins to help her unlock her destiny. In unleashing her magical skills, Maddy prepares herself to fight evil forces brewing in the Nine Worlds.

What may seem like a clichéd storyline is told beautifully in the hands of this talented writer. Harris's descriptive powers are in full force, as evidenced in passages like this:

Her place was a giant copper beech, with a thick, smooth bole and plenty of branches. Thirty feet up, there was a fork into which Maddy liked to sprawl, skirts hiked up, legs on either side of the trunk, watching the village through the circle of her left thumb and forefinger.

And Harris's dialogue reveals her background as a modern and medieval language scholar as well as her flair for comedy.

With the novel's use of magic and runes, Runemarks may seem like a romp through a Renaissance faire, but you will easily be lost to any other task but reading this wonderful book. Runemarks deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone ages ten and up...all the way up.

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