Thursday, February 20, 2014

Magic, animals, and intrigue: a batch of book reviews

With so much going on with my academic work (including my first article accepted for publication!), I've fallen behind on book reviews.  Here are a few brief thoughts on the childrens, YA, and adult novel I've read recently - some I loved, some were disappointing, but all were wonderful breaks from academic research.

Tamora Pierce's The Circle Opens quartet (Magic Steps, Street Magic, Cold Fire, and Shatterglass) is kind of a bummer after her original Circle of Magic set.  The original four books focused on the growing friendship between four lonely children who had magic with everyday things - weaving, smithing, gardening, and weather.  When the four wove their magic together, they found unexpected strength, and even at their young age, were able to help their teachers solve some very real problems, like a pirate attack, a massive forest fire, and even a plague.  The quality of the original books derived from the relationships between these characters, and I think it was a mistake for Pierce to separate the four in the sequel quartet.  As the title (The Circle Opens) implies, the four go their separate ways.  Without the interaction between Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar, the charm is gone, and oddly, the plot of every single book is the same: now a fully-credentialed mage, each has a responsibility to teach a new student - we readers are introduced to dancing, stone, cooking, carpentry, and glass magic.  The student resists, not believing that he or she really has magic, but eventually, our protagonist convinces their new student, and after some lessons, teacher and student help foil a serial killer.  Yes, really.  All four of the books revolve around stopping a serial killer.  With so many possible plotlines for these young mages taking their first adventures in the world, why did Pierce think it was a good idea for every one of these four books to sound exactly the same?

On a brighter note, it turns out that the rumors are true - The Princess Bride book is even better than the movie!  I loved the parenthetical asides, I loved the extended rescue from the Zoo of Death, and most of all, I loved the deliberate absurdity of Buttercup and Westley's romance.  The movie presents an epic romance, while the book has more ironic distance, satirizing the political situation of this fantasy realm and poking fun at the mere idea of an epic romance.

I looked up Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers after hearing that it helped influence the character of Cora on Downton Abbey.  Indeed, the novel is about "new money" American heiresses who marry into the English nobility.  The American women get titles and their English husbands get the infusion of funds needed to support their struggling estates - good for everybody, right?  Except that this is Edith Wharton we're talking about, and so no one can really be happy.  The novel is fantastic, and the real tragedy is that it was Wharton's last, and left unfinished.  Just like Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, readers aren't left hanging - the remainder of the plot is outlined for us.  But it's maddening to get so far into a great story and be left hanging!  (I'm reluctant to read a version completed by anyone else, but if that idea appeals to you, evidently you can find such copies.)

A voice teacher friend recommended James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small, explaining it as the very best of English provincial life, and I have to agree - it's an absolutely lovely novel, and largely autobiographical, which tells the story of a young veterinarian in the English countryside.  The book struck me as very masculine, and not just because the narrator was a man.  There are very few female characters, and nearly all of the ones that do appear are peripheral or sources of comedy.  There are a lot of birth stories, but these tales of pregnant farm animals aren't romanticized, and when Herriot isn't reaching up cow rectums, he's drinking or smoking his pipe.  Despite this very masculine feel, these short vignettes add up to a marvelously engaging picture of English country folk: ornery and tight-fisted, but also ruggedly independent and admirably hospitable.  A very funny and very heart-warming book, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, Angie Sage's Flyte, second in the Septimus Heap series following the amazing Magyk, was a bit of a let-down.  It was still engaging and whimsical, but this sequel falls prey to the common trap of not introducing enough new characters.  The thrill of discovery is gone, since we already know all of the major players, and it's just not as much fun to watch the same people run around having adventures again.  J.K. Rowling really handled the balance between new and old characters well in each new Harry Potter book; Sage wasn't quite so adept, and the second in her series also suffered from an uneven plot.  Still, I remain enthralled by the world she has created, and I look forward to the third one.

Monday, February 10, 2014


I think I would have enjoyed Jane Yolen's Young Merlin trilogy a lot more as a kid.  As an adult, despite the fascinating application of falconry metaphors to the origin story of the famous Merlin of King Arthur mythology, the first book, Passager, was simply too short to really grab my interest.  In this retelling, Merlin is abandoned in the wilderness as a young boy, where he becomes feral, living on mushrooms, berries, and the occasional raw fish, and slowly forgets his memories of life in human community and even his language, for lack of anyone with whom he can converse.  But when the wild boy sees a falconer and his bird, he follows the man home, and like a young falcon, is caught and tamed.  A passager, after all, is just that: a wild bird, caught young and lovingly tamed.  When the young boy discovers his name at the end, reclaiming his human identity without losing the intuition and affinity to the natural world, the scene is quite moving.  However, the book was just too short for any meaningful plot advancement.  This really is a brief little children's book, and it was ultimately unsatisfying.  Perhaps if all three were bound together...?  In any case, I think I'll leave the Young Merlin trilogy here, and not bother with the next two books.  Reading Passager instead made me really want to revisit The Snow Child, a far richer story about a child who manages to be self-sufficient in a harsh wilderness.  Sorry, Jane Yolen - turns out I prefer your books with a little more depth to them!  But if you're looking for an interesting, children's-length retelling of the early life of the wizard Merlin, Passager is a nice choice.

Evidently, Yolen has written over 280 books (thank you, Wikipedia).  Wow!  I've only read a few of those - my favorites, which I own, are Wizard's Hall and Dragon's Blood.  Have you read any of her books, and what did you think?

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Folk Keeper

Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper is one of those odd books that I enjoyed while reading, but enjoyed much more after I'd finished it.  It sticks with you, and I've thought about it a lot since putting it down.  It was my first book by this author, and I'm definitely going to check out her others (Well Wished (her debut novel), and the more recent and highly acclaimed Chime), for they promise to be in the same vein: first-person writing, with an otherworldly style and an unreliable narrator, and stories based on fairy tales that aren't strict retellings (I tend to find those boring - why not just read the original?).

It's frustrating for the purposes of this review that telling you the reason I liked this book so much would be a huge and unforgivable spoiler.  Let me just say that despite my recent disappointment with YA fiction, one so acute that it has led me to wonder whether I no longer like the genre, and still like old favorites simply because of nostalgia, The Folk Keeper has restored my appreciation.  YA fiction still has promise; Franny Billingsley is someone to watch out for.  Oddly enough, The Folk Keeper didn't feature a protagonist that I much identified with, nor, I think, were readers supposed to.  Corinna Stonewall is a very interesting narrator, definitely, but I'm not sure I liked her.  She had a selfish taste for secrets, power, and vengeance that often bordered on cruel - she wouldn't be a good role model, and is a far cry from the current vogue for the strong female narrator who confronts the problems of her dystopian world.  At the same time, though, I respected Corinna's courage and independence, and was delighted when she worked out the secrets of her past.

The Folk Keeper is quite short - 162 pages - but it's not a fast read.  Billingsley drops seemingly insignificant clues (although really, most of the secrets are not hard to figure out), but beyond them, it's worth reading this book slowly just to savor her language - choppy sentences, intuitive leaps, and all.  There's a lot to ponder by the time you reach the ending.  I still haven't decided whether I think Corinna's final choice was the right one, but then again, my opinion doesn't really matter; what matters is that she made it and was content.  With any luck, despite my reluctance to give away my very favorite aspects of this book, I've convinced you to at least give it a try!