What I've been reading
There's one thing that's really annoying about Abarat: Barker has planned it as a series of FIVE books, only the first two of which have actually appeared. I'm not a big fan of long series (trilogies are about all I can deal with), unless the author is concentrating solely on the books (like J. K. Rowling did). Barker isn't, so who knows when this will ever be continued.
That's too bad, because this is a fine fantasy novel, although I'm not sure that it's too appropriate for children (it's published by HarperCollins' children's imprint). For the most part, it's fine, but there are some really disturbing parts. Teenagers will be fine with this, but I'm not sure how much younger kids should be when they read this. But it's a good book nevertheless, as Barker gives us a standard set-up, a Minnesota girl who is out of place in the world, so she runs away and finds another one. Candy Quackenbush feels trapped in Chickentown, and one day she finds out that the town has a stranger history than she thought. Because everyone in town is focused on chickens (the town's claim to fame), they aren't interested in the secret history, so Candy runs away. Out on the prairie, she meets John Mischief and his brothers (who are heads on his antlers), who are on the run from a man called Mendelson Shape. Mischief implores Candy to activate an ancient lighthouse (which, incongruously, was built in the middle of the waterless plain), and when she does, an ocean appears. Candy and John Mischief jump into the water, and Candy is swept away to the Abarat.
The Abarat is an archipelago of 25 main islands, 24 of which are a different hour of the day (and always that hour). The 25th is a mysterious place that no one ever visits. Candy becomes embroiled in an adventure that sees her visit different islands while trying to escape Shape, who is working for Christopher Carrion, the Lord of Midnight. As she meets the odd characters who inhabit the Abarat, it becomes clear that she's far more important than she realized. Eventually, she makes her way to the 25th Hour, where she learns some important facts about her predicament. Of course, this comes near the end of the book, and the implications of what she learns will be felt throughout the rest of the series.
Barker takes a rather simplistic framework and populates it with wonderful characters, from the John brothers (each of the heads is also named John), Shape, and Carrion to Samuel Klepp, who produces an "almenak," Kaspar Wolfswinkel, who lives in a dome surrounded by intelligent cat-like creatures, Malingo, who lives in Wolfswinkel's house, and Jimothi, the leader of the tarrie-cats. There's also Rojo Pixler, the ultimate entrepreneur of the Abarat. These characters are vibrant and alive, and Barker does a fantastic job making their weirdness a strength, as Candy quickly realizes that she's the outsider despite being the most "normal." In stories like this, that's often the most difficult thing - making the outsider seem truly like an outsider, because as the human, we identify with her. The bizarre creatures that live in the Abarat become the "normal" ones, and we feel as off-kilter as Candy.
The basic premise of the book is simply to introduce Candy and the reader to the Abarat, even though Barker does give us the beginnings of more than one complex plot. The underlying theme seems to be a critique of rampant capitalism, which would disappoint me, given that it's a time-worn theme and Barker, after all, publishes books for a major publishing house. He does a nice job contrasting the two main villains in the book, however (Carrion, obviously, is one, but there's another one, too). He sets up a situation where Carrion may or may not be the biggest threat to Candy, and it's an intriguing idea. Of course, we'll have to wait for the rest of the series to find out where he's going with this.
I wish I could recommend Abarat unequivocally. It's a nice book, filled with odd paintings (by Barker himself) that bring the weird world to life. It's a frustrating reading experience, however, because of the fact that it's incomplete. I can recommend it if you don't mind waiting for years until Barker finishes the series, however. If that's your thing. I'll probably go get the second book just to see if the quality has kept up. It would be nice to see this finish before too long. That's not too much to ask, right?