Monday, May 25, 2009

Childbook Reading, part 3

If you happen to know or suspect what any of the unnamed books in this post are or who they're by, I would love to know.

The Hardy Boys. I read far too many of these, along with some Nancy Drew and Tom Swift, before realizing a deadly secret: they're all the same.

Pineapple Place. I remember little about this other than the name. When I checked recently, only the sequel was still in the library system.

Those Morgana books. I don't remember the title or author, but some children stumble upon a house full of mirrors. When a spell involving moonlight is worked, the mirrors became portals to another world, with the nice touch that on the other side you would appear however your reflection did here. Magic, originally contained in gemstones (if I recall), had been divided up into staffs of different ranks. There was a nasty game of questions in a dark basement. Someone is killed by shattering a mirror as he was passing through it. And one of the girls becomes Morgana's apprentice.

These books were really quite dark. I suspect I stopped reading them more or less intentionally, which is probably why I can't find them again now. Do I really want to? (This was probably somewhere between 3rd and 5th grade.)

Goosebumps. I also consider this wasted time now, although I suppose I know I don't like horror. I had a friend in second grade who had practically all of them and lent them to me.

Asimov, Norby and sequels. Who can forget this cute barrel shaped robot, hyperspace, ancient aliens named after Renaissance painters, and alternate universes? Probably my first sci fi.

Another unnamed book about a girl who was turned to stone either at the beginning or end. I think she was accepting of it which made it merely melancholy instead of terrible. There may have been a smog monster involved but I suspect I got it confused with another book.

Another unnamed book about some kids who fight aliens who have no creativity. There's a magic remote and Baba Yaga, too! I think the title was an acronym but I'm not sure exactly what it was. Something about geeks or nerds saving earth? The aliens may have been shaped like trash cans but that doesn't seem quite right.

The Falcon and the Serpent, by Cheryl A. Smith. Someone is stealing the souls of a kingdom's children: they go to sleep and never wake up. I particularly remember the trap set for the protagonist: he must choose to die for what he believes or, avoiding death, spurn his beliefs. From what I recall, this book had enough threads in the background that there could easily have been more set in this world, but Google finds nothing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Hunger Games

By Suzanne Collins.

Probably anyone reading this has already heard of this book, but just in case: Katniss is a girl (17) struggling to feed her family in a world dominated by televised atrocities. This is reality TV turned into a weapon: Every year, 12 of the 13 Districts outlying the Capitol of Panem (the remains of North America, we are told) are forced to send two of its children to compete in a fight to the death. As you may have guessed, Katniss is one of those sent.

The outstanding characteristic of this book is tension. Good or bad, this is an intense story, at least until suspension of disbelief fails. (In particular, I'm dubious about the speed with which a certain poison acts.)

What I liked: I must admit, tension made the book an incredible pageturner, even after I skipped to the end and started reading backwards. I also liked the suggestion of hidden mysteries, Cinna and the anonymous redhead in particular. It took me a while to realize what went along with the numerous Roman names in the story. (I wonder how significant the names are: there are several characters I would have placed on the "bad" side who don't have Roman names, and one who has a plant name. What might the redhead's name reveal?)

What I didn't like: The ending seemed contrived. Also, I didn't like Katniss very much: she thinks she understands the Games since she's seen them all her life, but she is naive about people. The real problem might be that her tough act seems too real. The Games themselves are a little too evil. Is there really no one who would refuse to participate, even if it means dying? (A comparison to the Roman colosseum is inevitable. Actually, reading that article shows even more parallels than I thought.)

In the end? Often horrifying, but certainly not dull.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Half Magic

By Edward Eager.

I'd better write something about this right now, or I'll never get to it.

First off: I wish I hadn't read the back cover before starting this. You find out what's going on so quickly anyway that I think it would have been more fun to guess it.

This is quite a fun story overall: four siblings find something magic, and growth results. I laughed at quite a few things that I'm sure I would have missed when I was younger. (I don't remember reading this at all before so I probably didn't. But then again, I remember reading Nesbit even though I can no longer recall anything that happened.) The prose isn't flowery but it gets the job done quite well enough.

The one really jarring note was when the children felt it would be somehow wrong to do magic on Sunday, and proceeded to play the rest of the day. No mention was made of church, or the Lord's day, or even a day of rest. Did they intuit some moral subconsciously? I'm having a hard time thinking of other reasons it could have been wrong.

Overall, this was quite a clever, if light, read.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Childhood Reading, part 2

Stephen Lawhead, The Warlords of Nin. This book was a big influence on me: it put me off mass-market paperbacks forever. Here's why:

That's right, the cover came off, probably the second time I read it. (Note that it may have been read before I had it; it may have come from a garage sale.) Other than that? Bad guys with magic (or fate on their side?), good guys without it (except for the magic sword), necromancy, and a hidden monotheism. (Hidden in that most people in the book are unaware of it, although it is a big part of Quentin's story.) Also the smith they ask to make the sword (in the second or third book, I think) doesn't want to touch the ore they use because it has the power to heal. Comfortable with his deformity? At least he has a hunchback instead of a lame leg... I think.

Taylor Caldwell, Dear and Glorious Physician. I must have found this in my grandmother's basement and read it in ninth grade, because I remember giving a book report about it where the teacher had to tell me that no, actually, Taylor Caldwell is a woman. I'm pretty sure I loved it at the time (it gave me the word "pusillanimous", after all) but I'm more skeptical now. It had mysticism and hypnotism (I'm starting to see a pattern here) and the master and his maidservant waiting until their respective spouses had died (of old age or fever or something) to marry? Seriously? Not that I think it was wrong to wait; I agree 100% with that. What I think might be wrong is that they had each other lined up already. It also had martial arts and a smart, skeptical main character: Luke the physician, if you didn't know. As a boy and a young man. Also a romance that doesn't go anywhere (I'm not sure how to describe it without saying what happened) although I don't think I cared much at the age when I read it.

The Bible. I'm a little hesitant to include this here, but why not? In tenth grade or so, I went to an Acquire the Fire conference where we were encouraged to complete a year-long Bible reading plan. I did read it (at least, I checked off all the boxes... in pencil in case I wanted to do it again) but I didn't remember much of it afterwards. I don't think it was worthwhile. Forcing yourself to get up at 6:00 to spend 10 minutes reading a couple chapters you won't remember by the end of the day is not a good way to study the Bible. I think now you really need to have a hunger to glean meaning from it, but at the time I'm pretty sure I was just doing it because I was told I should. Reading it now in a much more ad hoc fashion, I find all sorts of things that I don't remember one bit from that read-through.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Childhood Reading part 1

Most of these are books that I read as a child and haven't read again since. With some of them I am in the odd position of knowing more about them from what other people have said than from what I remember of reading them. (Exceptions to the rereading: I recently reread Laurence Yep's Dragon series and I've reread a few of Dianna Wynne Jones' books more recently.) These will generally be in no particular order, just as I think of them, and until I get bored.

C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. I actually read these several times but don't remember a lot of the things that people talk about. Instead, I remember: the stars, Turkish delight, Tashlan, the lion attack, those who disappear into Aslan's shadow, the blind dwarves, the ruined world the Witch comes from, green and gold rings, Puddleglum and giants; were there monopods, too? A pool that gives death (more about this in the next one). Eustace the dragon.

John White, The Archives of Anthropos. These owe an awful lot to Narnia and the Bible, although I only read the first five. I remember picking them out starting with The Sword Bearer at the Christian bookstore. Is it sad that I only just realized John the Sword Bearer might be intended to parallel John the Baptist? He starts in Canada (with pea soup fog) but escapes through the basement of a bookstore to find himself in another land. I read a review in the last several years that said the writing was bland but I have a lot of great memories: Wisdom's house, flat on the outside and huge on the inside; the wine of free pardon; Gaal trees; a valley of dry bones that come to life (also with a pool that gives death! Why did I only just realize this parallel with Narnia?); an unlikely dragon named Pontificator (Ponty for short); the Lord of snow and ice ("Tell them that I am"); and the bad guys: Lord Lunacy; a nasty sorcerer whose name I can't recall though he's trapped in his own portrait for thousands of years; an evil witch; and Nicholas Slapfoot, who chases John from Canada to Anthropos, and keeps on chasing him. Also fun? One of the books is basically the journey of the three wise men, at least one or two of whom are somewhat skeptical. Has anyone else heard of these?

Thomas Locke, the Spectrum Chronicles. I only read the first four and I can barely remember the first one, which I lost shortly after reading it, although I do recall that it was about a different character and set (mostly) in a different world than the others. Books 2 through 4 are about Consuela, the scared girl under the table in the first book (which is almost the entirety of what I remember from that book) and Wander. Thinking back, these are a combination of true love and adventure in space. Consuela is somehow translated from Earth to a foreign world, where she meets Wander and turns out to have a great Talent like his: a psychic ability needed to safely guide starships between the stars. It is so rare, however, that the nameless diplomat (they give up their names when they take office) who takes him away for the Hegemony's use dismisses her as worthless. Unlikely? Sure. But nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Sigmund Brouwer, Magnus. For some reason I read the first part of this as a separate book which had some sections that were in the complete book cut out. I was very surprised to find different details when I read the whole thing. This is the story of (whistles, goes to look up the name) Thomas, a young man who inherits a magnificent treasure: a chest of books (in the twelfth century?). He goes on to take over an impregnable fortress, and that's only the beginning. I will say that he gets yanked around a lot and there is a subplot reminiscent of Poison Study. There's also hypnotism (which I hate) and some guy who's killed by dumping honey in his ear, followed by maggot eggs. Was this detail included just for the yuck effect? (It is part of a story related to the main character by someone else.) I do have some nostalgia but I freely admit that parts of this book are disturbing. And I looked carefully at my bed for a while after reading about assassination by snake under the covers.

Kathy Tyers, Firebird and the rest of the trilogy. Pre-Messianic space opera? Firebird is a talented musician and composer, but as a spare child grows up knowing she is destined to die young, preferably in service to her planet. She really, truly tries very hard to do so: first by ramming her fighter into a planet, then by taking poison, then by provoking her captors to kill her... fortunately for the reader, she is prevented by a top-notch intelligence officer serving the other side. Also fortunately, he is extremely moral. Unfortunately, he is also extremely psychic. I also have a soft spot in my heart for these books, despite the number of gruesome ways there are to die: poison, of course; disintegration rifles (they handcuff the hands behind a steel pole to retain proof of decease); sonic weapons that implode the brain cavity; poison gas; being psychicly commanded to kill yourself (of course the good guys never do this); being smashed into a crater by telekinesis; photo weapons (possibly nuclear or hydrogen bombs, I was never quite sure); at the end of that list, rifle slugs with timed explosives sound almost tame. Would I read it again? I want to...

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Great Divorce: A Dream

By C. S. Lewis.

I should change my blog name to "Reads Too Fast"; (little) brother's recent comment on Spell Hunter was "Is she in love with him or something?" "Why do you think that?" "Every time they talk about humans it stings her a little." I need to learn some patience in reading and in a way, that's why I started this blog. I would probably enjoy good books more if I did that. It's hard, though, because for a lot of books I'm not sure if they're good until I finish them. Once in a while, though, there's a book that you know is going to be good after the first page, so you can settle in and enjoy the ride.

Despite that digression, I'm not about to say that about The Great Divorce. In the spirit of omitting needless words, I'm tempted to say that it's unorthodox and leave it at that. This book is a sort of essay presented as a dream of a journey to Hell and to Heaven; the real focus for me was what makes people lost, the things they hold onto that drag them down, which fits in with Lewis's introduction and thesis: the things of Heaven are completely incompatible with those of Hell. You can't hold onto just a little sin, or a tiny selfishness, or even a natural love, and know divine love: they must be surrendered and put to death absolutely.

As a story, this (quite short) book perhaps lacks something; but as a stimulus to thought I'd say it succeeds quite well.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The White Darkness

By Geraldine McCaughrean.

For some reason this book reminds me of Flannery O'Connor: there's a crooked Bible salesman who takes advantage of naivety, a girl doing home study for her doctorate in micropettiness, and some crutches. Oh yes, and a surprise vacation to Antarctica. Can't imagine how I forgot that little detail.

None of the details above are actually true but there is a resemblance.

Symone Wates is obsessed with Titus Oates and his doomed 1911 Antarctic expedition. Now that he's dead, he doesn't have any pressing commitments in his schedule, so he's free to follow her around -- or so she imagines, anyway. She has a very active imagination. So when her uncle (really a family ... acquaintance) takes her on a weekend holiday to Paris and then announces a spontaneous trip to Antarctica, she imagines nothing is wrong. The trip that follows contains increasingly disturbing revelations.

What I liked: The first thing that really struck me was the early scene in the diner where Sym discloses a certain fact about herself. The book also covers a lot of information about the Antarctic without infodumping (much). Sym's voice is very well done and highly readable. The tension is pretty high throughout the book without becoming unbearable. (Since she's the narrator, we can assume she survives unless the author pulls a Lovely Bones-style* trick, right?)

What I didn't like: Sym's naivety is incredible. When people in the Antarctic base camp get sick and she doesn't, she dismisses it as adjustment problems. When the plane that would have brought them home explodes, she dismisses it as a fuel leak or insulation problem. This is a survival novel but although she has to survive the Antarctic, the real challenge is surviving her uncle. The problem is that she doesn't realize that for a long time. Also, she is the only character who is really likable (Titus Oates is too, but mostly he's her).

This has a great narrator in Sym, incredibly creepy family dynamics, and a high-tension trek through the Antarctic (to say wasteland is a redundancy, although it is beautiful, like many deadly things) with a madman. I doubt I would read it again but I might read another book about Sym if any were published.

* Disclaimer: I haven't actually read Lovely Bones but am pretty sure it has a dead narrator.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter

Also known as Knife in the U.K., which I prefer. By R. J. Anderson.

Disclaimer: I've been following the author's blog since around the end of 2006 and eagerly awaiting this book since at least last year; I was actually hesitant to read it, lest I be disappointed. I am also hesitant to write this post, lest the author be disappointed. (Hi there.)


My actual reaction is more complicated. This book is actually haunting me (where haunting is a sophisticated literary term that means I woke up thinking about it). When I finished it yesterday I was somewhat nonplussed, thinking "Okay, that's nice enough, but I don't love it", but the romance grew on me over the next several hours.

Today I realized what really creeps me out about it. It's a zombie book! (to put it facetiously*)

The story: Knife is a precocious young faery whose colony has been Sundered from its magic and the outside world since long before her birth. Only the (secretive, Machiavellian) Queen retains the ability to control magic, although all faeries had it once. As the Queen's Hunter, Knife decides to take matters into her own hands, find out why the magic has been lost, and try to fix it...

What I liked: The characters are almost all very well done. (Paul's father doesn't seem to get much attention, though.) The little touches that come from this being a faery story: Knife hides in a basket filled with crumpled paper, but doesn't know what it is. The chuckle I got from her pride in being a whole fly's length taller than everyone else. The deft reminders of, for example, the importance of names: they are only briefly mentioned, but in such a way as to make the reader remember. The tight prose. The descriptions are striking: this is a well-detailed world. The sweet, innocent romance. The references to a gardener (possibly this one?).

What I didn't like: This is very much Knife's story, which is fine, but her world doesn't seem very large; it's almost as if it ends beyond the house and grounds where she lives (with one exception). No one outside that radius seems to play an important part. Even inside, the unnamed faeries in the colony (there seem to be 50 or more) seem to be a sort of shadowy, amorphous cloud, playing as extras in crowd scenes. There are no chance encounters with someone unnamed that turn out to be important later, as far as I recall. (My recollection may be poor; I'll admit to misreading Bryony's name as Byrony until I tried to look it up and couldn't find it.) What really bothers me, however, is the way magic is used to change minds and wills, just as in Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely. It seems to me that a general rule of fairy tales is that the characters should have to make choices that lead to their downfalls; stories where free will is taken away by magic tend to bother me a lot. Physical coercion is one thing, but being able to change someone else's essence is another.

In the end? There's much to like about this book; the ending is quite good, open without being unresolved. There are some hints of Christian themes but not as much as I had hoped. I do hope to read more from the author. But I remain disturbed by the magic, as explained above. (I could also just be in a bad mood since the mirror scene with Magpie in Blackbringer was similarly awful but didn't have such a lasting effect on my impression of the book.)

* I am thinking of these zombies. Maybe it doesn't really fit?

The Everlasting Man

By G. K. Chesterton.

This is my second time trying to read this book. This time I actually finished, although I am sure that in rereading it (eventually) I would glean more.

The sum of Chesterton's argument is encapsulated in the several page "SUMMARY OF THIS BOOK" which appears at the end; it might not be a bad idea to read this first. He contends that man and the Church are both things unique, strikingly so when considered on a level with other things purportedly of their kind. If man is an animal, he is the only animal capable of claiming so; if the Church is a mythology or philosophy, it is the only one which unites the intellect and the spirit of romance, not to mention unabashed hope for things to come. (Chesterton makes a point of distinguishing between pessimism and optimism, which are to him types of fatalism, and hope, which allows for free will.) It is the only with a Gospel, good news that must be spread. It is, as he says, the Church Militant, of which Islam is a later and paler imitator.

Many of his arguments are surprisingly simple, but that does not mean you do not have to read carefully: they may be gone before you realize he is making them. One of the striking ones in my memory is that the doctrine that God is Love and the doctrine of the trinity are nearly the same thing; Chesterton says:

For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten.

Certainly this book is a weighty slog; it is probably unreasonable on my part to expect light reading on weighty matters. But there are also thought-provoking nuggets together with some humour (for instance in the obversation that no mortal power can prevent the poet from contemplating the skylark in spring). Is this book worth reading? Probably, but only if you take it seriously.

An addendum: I read the Ignatius Press reprint, but this book and many others by Chesterton are in the public domain and available online.