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.

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