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I have been nervous about the Freddy books for about a decade now; that is how long it's been since I'd read any of them. At least. I grew up with them, as some relative or other tucked a couple into a holiday box one year, and the library had a circulating selection. I remember really liking the ones with the Martians and the others are kind of blurry, so I had the fear one always has about childhood books: did this, while I grew up, receive a visit from the Suck Fairy? And did she bring her friends the Racism and Sexism Fairies along for the ride? I was so nervous about the Freddy books that I put off rereading the ones I own for about five years due, solely, to that nervousness. They are exactly the kind of thing that turns out to be awful when you grow up a depressing percentage of the time, and given that they were written in the 1930s through 1950s, well, the awful could have been spectacularly hideous.

I went through the library today and reread a lot of the ones I knew as a kid and read one, Freddy Goes to the North Pole, for the first time.

Thankfully, they aren't terrible. Whew. They are not brilliant, and they vary in quality extremely; you can see Brooks teaching himself to write them as he goes. They do not have consistent worldbuilding to the point where they do not have worldbuilding at all. They do not have consistent memories of things that happened in previous books, even.

But they are and remain charming, cute little books about a farm full of talking animals who, as a farm full of talking animals would inevitably be, are bored with farm work and therefore do anything else that comes into their heads. Freddy, the protagonist pig, has been a detective, an editor, a politician, a travel agent, a rocket scientist, a terrible poet (sadly a consistent feature)... the list goes ever on and on. The whole is set in a sort of bucolic-to-the-point-of-comedic-exaggeration whitebread extremely-stereotype-American small town which manages to get away with its strains of anti-Communism, rabid patriotism and general dislike of politicians by being such a caricature that you cannot possibly take any of its politics seriously. I am not capable of taking anti-Communist sentiments as intended as a real statement when they are expressed by a sheriff who hands off the key to the jail to his prisoners every weekend to make sure they don't feel unloved and rejected by society. I'm just not. Nobody can make me.

As an adult, I am capable of noticing which precise great English poems Freddy has plagiarized and turned into travesties of themselves in the service of his, uh, art. (Put down the Kipling! And back away slowly!) Apart from that, the books really haven't changed a bit, although I have no idea what anyone would think of them now who didn't read them as a kid.

The new-to-me-today is an odd duck among them, one of the ones that is more out-and-out fantastical, which is not the usual direction of this series. I don't think it works very well, but this is only the second and Brooks is still finding his feet. The animals decide to found a travel agency for other animals, in which they show them around various sights of interest in exchange for farm labor, and consequently all find themselves free to take a very long vacation; a party decides to go the North Pole. When it is not heard back from, another party goes... and discovers, in fact, Santa Claus. Whose shop has been taken over by the crew of a whaling ship who want to make it more efficient, which is making everybody miserable. The animals have to find a way to get the crew to go home without hurting them, since they generally mean well. Along the way they save a couple of orphans, have a genuinely tense confrontation with a wolf pack, and totally disregard everything about the way the climate on the way to the North Pole actually is (seriously, they all sleep on the ground under feather beds every night and it's just fine). It's an incredibly peculiar book.

As with all other Brooks, some animals talk and some don't, and some animals who talk eat other animals who talk, even knowing they talk, and some people are willing to eat even animals they know talk while other people are perfectly willing to treat the animals exactly as they would human beings, and the inconsistency of all of this multiplies by about ten thousand when you throw in Santa Claus, a crew of whalers, abused children, a fake treasure map, and lots and lots of filked Tennyson and Walter Scott. This specific novel doesn't quite gel, in that it's more a series of peculiar set-pieces than a coherent anything, but I can't disrecommend it, because it's certainly different.

And as I said, the series in general holds up, especially the ones with the Martians, because Brooks turns out to be way better at SF than fantasy, once you just take the talking animals as one of those things that happens sometimes. Which in fact is how everyone takes it. So, while these are not the sort of kids' books that turn out to be treasures that were totally beyond one's comprehension at the time (Keith Robertson's Henry Reed books turn out to be hilarious in ways I had never dreamed possible), they are the sort you can read happily and reminiscently without feeling sick to one's stomach. This makes me very cheerful, because, well, that's a whole chunk of childhood.
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If most writers were to write a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, I should look at them doubtfully, over my glasses, and try to be polite in the face of my doubts, and worry about whether or not to read the thing, and so on.

But this is Hilary McKay, and she wrote Saffy's Angel. Which is one of the best children's books of the past decade or so and stands proudly with writers like Elizabeth Enright.

So I knew that this would be a good book, as indeed it is. What I didn't know was whether it would be a reasonable sequel to its predecessor, whether it would have anything to do in tone and character development with the things that happen in that book.

Yes and no.

This is a story about what happens at Miss Minchin's Seminary after Sara Crewe leaves it behind. Because she had friends and enemies there, and left them lacking a scullery maid, and went off very suddenly, and this is the sort of event that changes a place forever. Things cannot go back to the same dull round after you have had A Plot Occur.

And indeed, in this book they do not. Ermengarde, who was Sara's particular friend, misses her and is greatly distressed by having been left out of the last bit of the plot of the previous (which I hadn't really noticed, but, indeed she was). Lottie, who was Sara's particular charge, can no longer be told what to do by anyone or anything. Lavinia, who was Sara's particular enemy, sees her as having managed a jailbreak, which means that the school is a jail: and in looking around for ways out of the jail the thought that occurs to her is labeled, in grand colors, Oxford.

It's a book about mourning, and wondering whether one was really ever necessary to the person one mourns for, and coming to life again in the ashes. As that, it works, and it follows its model, for A Little Princess is very much a novel of and about grief, and the stages of grief, and coming back from that.

It is, also, in an approximation of Burnett's style which is reasonable without containing the preachy aphorisms Burnett goes off into sometimes. But McKay does not have Burnett's gift for the single exact enlivening sentence-- at least not with the Victorian sort of adjectives she is here required to use, for that is a gift I have seen her have elsewhere, with contemporary language.

The thing is, though-- look.

I am a feminist. I am fond of books about women. I am fond of books about women and girls learning who they are and what they can be. This book is full of that. I enjoy it wildly.

In fact it is, for the time it takes place, possibly unconvincingly full of that. I know it's a children's book, I know it's meant to end happily, but this is a book in which every woman of any interest to the reader sees whether she is in a trap and if so figures a way out of it, every single one of them. In short, this is not a tragedy at all: and in the original, there is still death. I look at the way things work out in this book, and the plot, and the plot says 'hard work will make everything absolutely fine', and that is not what the first book says; it says 'hard work and kindness will make everything fine, except what is by nature unfixable'. In the world in which these young women go to seminary, the trap of the female role was, sometimes, unfixable despite rage and pain and all the work in the world. I would have liked that acknowledged, because if I had read this particular book as a girl myself, I would have thought that if things weren't coming right that meant I wasn't working hard enough. Sometimes all the hard work and all the dreams and all the kindness in the world do not change a reality that is a harsh one. Sara's father really died. In McKay, even Miss Minchin breaks her chains, finally.

In short, the first, despite having been written in a notably sentimental age by the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, is darker, and I think a great children's book needs at least an undertone of darkness. The reason A Little Princess lasts is the darkness, the loneliness, the grief, and the attic, and the portrait of what kindness can and cannot do for those.

Which McKay has known before, in her Casson books, and will probably know again. It is difficult to have things come out ambiguously or complicatedly when you are working with material you have loved as a child. This is perhaps why I do not like her Sara. Her Sara is, well, not enough older; hurt has its aftereffects, doesn't it? Not as much here.

So I would say this is very good, and very readable, and does not make me wish to throw things, but it is not a Great Novel as the first was (not that one expected a Great Novel, but one could hope). Still, it is nice to know what happened to and at Miss Minchin's, at the end.
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Review of the book I read on July 28th.

Joan Aiken, over the course of a long and illustrious career, wrote so many books that I have lost track of them, but is probably best known among my acquaintance for the Dido Twite series, a YA alternate-universe Victorian-era-except-she-didn't-reign fantasy romp that charms everyone else much more than it charms me. She also wrote Gothics, which I haven't read.

My problem with Joan Aiken is an unusual one, so unusual that it took me some time to identify it. I realized immediately that I found her work boring, but I couldn't figure out why, because on the surface it is just the sort of thing I ought to like.

The problem is that we think the same way. Someone will mention a plot point in one of her novels, and I will say 'but that was so dull, it was obvious that that was going to happen from page six', and the person will stare at me. And after several years it became obvious that it is not that her plots are predictable, it is that it is always what I would have done if I were plotting the book, and so I expect it and therefore find it predictable.

Therefore I have kept reading Joan Aiken, because on two separate occasions now I have run across things of hers which do do exactly what I would have done in the circumstances, but which are so much more impressively executed than I was expecting that I know they are better than I could have done them. And that is a rare treasure, if you have ever run into someone who thinks the same way you do, to get to see them do something better sharper shinier more. It gives the reading effect of eucatastrophe: I thought this would be the same old thing, but it isn't. It is almost as pleasant as surprising oneself.

The first of the two Joan Aiken things I like is The Stolen Lake, which I will defend against all comers as the most insane Arthurian novel ever written, and desperately treasure. I don't want to tell you anything else about it. It is too gloriously weird.

The second is the short story 'The Land of Trees and Heroes', which, as it is an Armitage family story, has been reprinted by Small Beer Press in this collection, The Serial Garden, along with all the other Armitage stories.

The deal with the Armitages is that, while they were on their honeymoon, Mrs. Armitage worried that their life might be boring, and wished for magical and exceptional things to happen to them. But only-- well, mostly-- on Mondays, so as not to make too much of a mess. The first and seminal Armitage story, which Aiken wrote at the age of sixteen (it reads as though she'd been a pro for decades) is called 'Yes, But Today Is Tuesday', in which the Armitage children inform their parents that there is a unicorn in the garden and this is incredibly confusing and upsetting because it is, in fact, Tuesday. The world has therefore slipped its natural courses. Unicorns are fine on Mondays, but Tuesday is just beyond the pale...

At their best, the Armitage stories, which Aiken wrote throughout her multi-decade career, walk a thin and lovely balance between the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are taken completely for granted and the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are, well, extremely peculiar. The Armitages are perfectly capable of dealing with anything whatsoever, as long as it happens on a Monday and everyone gets turned back into their natural shapes before teatime. This must have been an influence on Diana Wynne Jones, I can't see it not being.

At their worst, the stories fall off one side or the other of that tightrope. When everyone is too blasé about magic, there's little sense of danger, and when they're too confused, there's little sense of the unflappability that really makes the humor. But at least half the stories do walk that line adequately.

And 'The Land of Trees and Heroes' throws in the numinous. It is, as far as I can tell, an Armitage retelling (with alterations) of At the Back of the North Wind, without the bad poetry and Victorian philosophizing. It's funny (there is one segment that makes me laugh every single time), mythic, odd, pragmatic, and manages to feel nothing at all like E. Nesbit (which, by virtue of subject matter, it should; I love E. Nesbit but sometimes she is a magnetic force).

So I bought the collection for that one story, really, but it is a good collection, a good read-aloud book for a rainy night, full of wizards who practice eminent domain, church fetes to buy new wands for retired fairies, and the unicorns eating the azaleas. And, thank heaven, it is never, ever twee; sometimes flat, but never over-sentimental, purple, or treacly.

Maybe in another decade or so I'll run into another Joan Aiken I like.
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Links to the reviews I posted during the recent LJ outage. I am not reposting, but anonymous and open ID commenting are open over there (though I would appreciate some kind of name signed to anonymous comments so as to be able to maintain continuity of conversation).

Day 325: Trilogy, H.D.. Poetry, unfairly overlooked lesbian author.

Day 326: Paying For It, Chester Brown. Graphic novel. Interesting but highly problematic memoir about prostitution from the perspective of a customer.

Day 327: Faerie Winter, Janni Lee Simner. Good YA fantasy by a friend of mine.

Day 328: The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Unfairly obscure Argentinian science fiction indirectly responsible for the movie Last Year at Marienbad.

Day 329: Earth X, Alex Ross and Jim Krueger. Graphic novel. Dark Marvel Comics AU with a very interesting take on Captain America.

Day 330: Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As Ghosts, Ursula Vernon. Fifth in Vernon's fun series of illustrated kids' books; not a strong entry.

And the two since made it through crossposting.
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Review of the book I read Monday, July 25th, yay almost being caught up. My goal is to be caught up before I have to go to Otakon this weekend and fall drastically behind again.

Well, this latest installment of Ursula Vernon's semi-graphic-novel Dragonbreath series is at least better than the immediately previous, Lair of the Bat Monster, which just didn't have any spark to it. This one suffers from being set in a very confined space, and from not having very much of the truly spectacular weirdness which is Vernon at her best. In fact, the story beats of this one are all pretty much predictable as soon as you know what genre she's working in, and I was moderately annoyed by that.

Anyway, Danny Dragonbreath and his friends go trick-or-treating. One of his friends is his usual sidekick, Wendell, and the other is Christiana, who is such a confirmed skeptic that she doesn't even believe that Danny is a dragon instead of some kind of big lizard or something. They get tricked by the school bully into going into a house that's supposed to be haunted, and hey, what do you know, it is.

The best things about this are the running jokes about Wendell's and Christiana's parents, who are devoutly bent on being Educational At All Times and have consequently made their children dress for Halloween as a hydrogen atom and a salmonella bacterium. Also, Ursula Vernon draws a reasonably creepy evil clown. But most of this is the party of friends wandering through the house and being scared, and it just kind of gets old after a while. Where by after a while I mean pretty quickly.

Still, as I said, it's better than the last one, so maybe this series is looking up again. The next one is apparently set at a summer camp. That has potential.
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A pleasant, rambling, and delightful little book based on Chinese folktales. The author's description of its genesis in the afternote begins: "By the age of eleven, I had fully disregarded my Asian heritage. My wise mother, knowing that any kind of forced cultural exposure would lead to scorn, silently left half a dozen Chinese folktale and fairy-tale books on the bookshelf. Unable to resist the pull of a new book, I very quietly began to read them."

This is a book steeped in its author's obvious happiness in her work, in her material, and in the way she gets to pull stories that she loves into a single thread.

I'd heard some of the stories-- the one about the painting of a dragon which is so good that the artist has to leave out the eyes, and then when the eyes are put in it comes to life; the general idea of the peaches of immortality; the waterfall which can transform a fish into a dragon if the fish can leap up it. Some I had not, and some are no doubt original. The protagonist, Minli, comes from a very poor village which is overlooked by a mountain on which nothing will grow because it is the heart of a dragon mother who has been separated from her children. Minli decides to travel to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to change her fortune, and in the process wanders through a great many stories about the moon, destiny, the nature of happiness, and the wicked deeds of a particular evil magistrate.

Many of the shorter stories are told separately as interjections in the text, which are told in a very oral style, inserted when some character tells a story, and this is part of what lends it the pleasantly rambling feel, these things that feel like digressions and aren't, necessarily. This is a text that is willing to take the scenic route to get where it is going, and which wants to remember that it does have oral roots. I think it would probably go well aloud.

I just simply liked this. It's sweet-natured, not overly preachy, and fun, and you get to sit there wondering how she's going to tie xyz disparate element in when it appears, and it all does wind up in a neat and prettily planned convergence. There's a lot of cool stuff-- talking lion statues, dragon pearls, kites flown on the threads of destiny-- and the whole is illustrated with the author's own (detailed and precise) full-color drawings. If you need a book to give to someone in elementary school any time soon, this would be a very good bet.
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The third of Ursula Vernon's illustrated-novel Dragonbreath series, which I have been reading out of order, and by far my favorite to date.

Danny Dragonbreath and his iguana friend Wendell are having a perfectly ordinary school lunch, or are attempting to, when Wendell's hotdog bites him. They take this in stride-- it is, after all, only fair-- until Wendell starts growing hair all over his body and becoming eerily hypnotized by the moon.

At which point the problem becomes what to do about hotdog-induced lycanthropy. Horror movies and folklore just don't cover this specific issue.

From there we get a fast-paced romp which is a loving homage to the classic werewolf movie and various other forms of horror, a story sufficiently silly that I cannot figure out how it could possibly scare anybody, and a never-ending source of great one-liners. (When Danny and Wendell are sneaking out of a house late at night, and Wendell is very carefully hiding behind bushes and creeping from tree to tree, Danny points out that there aren't any adults nearby, and they haven't seen any ninjas in this neighborhood for months, so get over it. This moment is so perfectly Ursula Vernon that it summarizes something for me, as does the bit in which calling the number on the package that the hotdogs came in actually produces useful information, even though there is no handy source of holy water mixed with mustard when they hear that that could be helpful.)

In short, this is even more deranged than the one with the ninja frogs, and it's silly and sweet and will make you smile. I am sad that the fourth one, with the bat monster, was so message-driven and hammerfisted, because the third is a good example of what this series can be when Vernon is doing her best with it. Hopefully it will get this good again; I know she's got like six more planned.
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Review from July 3rd.

You get two books today, because I found Jill Paton Walsh's Birdy and the Ghosties and Matthew and the Sea Singer together at the library and they're both short. Jill Paton Walsh really came to my attention when [community profile] papersky gave me a copy of Knowledge of Angels, a staggeringly brilliant medieval theological fantasy which is one of the few books I know that really captures the way in which people in the past simply did not think the way people in the present think. In the process of my mentioning to [personal profile] sovay that everyone in the world ought to read Knowledge of Angels, [personal profile] sovay looked up Walsh's bibliography. I discovered I'd had The Green Book read to me in elementary school and had read about six of her others, in that way where one reads things as a young teenager and promptly forgets the title and author but can recite sentences word-perfect a decade later. Then [personal profile] sovay discovered that she'd been looking for the titles and author of Birdy and the Ghosties and Matthew and the Sea Singer for the last twenty years, because they were formative, so I read them.

Wow.

You can read each of these in about ten minutes, even if you aren't me, because they are very short, but they will stick with you. They have the kind of language that feels hewed out of solid oral tradition, found or grown rather than designed, and yet constructed with a layer of novelistic care as well as the classical pattern of the folktale. If I am reminded of anything, which I'm not, really, it's Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, except that these are for anybody from about the age of four up.

Birdie, Bird Janet, lives with her mother and father in a hut where a road meets a river and the river meets the sea. Her father is a ferryman, mostly rowing across the river but sometimes taking people to the nearest sea island. In Birdie and the Ghosties, Birdie learns that she has second sight (delightfully and pragmatically expressed as looking at everything twice), which becomes useful when her father gets asked to ferry three ghosts across to the second sea island, the one that wasn't there until that morning, and Birdie has to sit in the bows to even out the weight of the boat. Her father can't see the ghosts at all. This is one of those books that has a surface plot, which is perfect, and then another set of things going on which are more concealed, which are also perfect, and which rose up and smacked me on the last page so I had to sit blinking and contemplating for longer than it had taken to read the book. Astonishing.

Matthew and the Sea Singer is slightly less complex, but funnier: Matthew is an orphan Birdie buys from a cruel master, who is taken by a sea queen because he has a voice that sounds like heaven. She won't give him back unless they teach one of her sea creatures to sing just as well as he can, which is not an easy proposition; for one thing, it has to stay wet, and the parson is the choirmaster, and nobody's quite certain it's right to have it flopping about in the font like that... According to [personal profile] sovay this one is a real folktale, although not one I'd heard before. It's also basically perfect. I can't figure out how either of these books could possibly be improved on. They have good illustrations, even, watercolor over pen-and-ink with a slightly smudgey feel that works well for both funny and numinous.

These are utterly spectacular and I urge you not to miss them if you like folktale retellings at all even a little bit. They're out of print, but I had no trouble at the library, and it was the town library, not the university, so they shouldn't be that hard to track down. Buying them, on the other hand, well, going to have to work on that, I think. It will be worth it.
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So, as you may recall, a little while ago I stumbled across the extremely peculiar nature diaries of Opal Whiteley, who may or may not have written at seven an extraordinarily detailed and completely bizarre account of her life and the country around her house. In the comments, [personal profile] sovay asked if maybe Whiteley had been influenced by Emily of New Moon, and then said, wait, Whiteley's book came out and was a huge bestseller in 1920 and Emily of New Moon came out in 1923...

Having read Emily of New Moon this evening, I will personally swear an affidavit before anyone you like that this book is, in fact, what happened when Montgomery read Whiteley. I haven't read Montgomery's diaries, which might prove or disprove the hypothesis-- anyone who has read those, feel free to step in-- but damn, it's amazing, if you put Anne of Green Gables in a blender with Whiteley this is absolutely what you get coming out the other side.

Emily is a smart and sensitive child sent to live with relatives after the death of her father. She is determined to be a writer, in the face of non-comprehension and/or active hostility from her family, and the book is very funny about her juvenile poetry, best describable as sub-Tennyson. It's obvious, though, that she does have the talent and perseverance to go somewhere with it. The portions of the book not concerned with writing are about farm, friends, possible romantic interests (of whom one seriously skeeves me out; it is not reasonable at thirty-five to decide to wait for a twelve-year-old and I have this horrible suspicion she's actually going to marry him *headdesk*), and a rather incoherent and vaguely supernatural plot about a local scandal.

The portions of the book concerned with her writing involve the aforementioned poetry, but also large stretches of letters to her dead father, quoted in full, and all I have to say about the spelling, subject matter, number of fairies mentioned, and protagonist's attitude towards animals, sunsets, and moderately large rocks is: Whiteley, Whiteley, Whiteley. Oh, it's somewhat more conventional in grammar (how could it not be), but seriously, she names trees in the same style. Given Whiteley's fantasies about perfect dead parents who wanted her to be intelligent and learned as opposed to her real family who wanted her to be obedient, this could almost qualify as fanfiction were it not that that story is also so very much the framework Montgomery was already working in.

I have mixed feelings about a lot of Montgomery-- the pacing of Anne of Green Gables is nonexistent, and she knew what she wanted to write and stuck to it (over and over), but The Blue Castle is a perfect little book, one of the greatest romance novels and female escapes-from-domestic-Hades I have read. This one is better-paced than Anne but has, as I mentioned, a plot element I find skeevy, and has a thin overlay of twee that wanders in and out (too much about those cutesy-Victorian-type flower fairies). I do always have a soft spot for portraits of girls who are going to grow up to be writers, to do the work of that, and who are not judged for it by their narratives. This is a readable book, pleasant enough, but I'm not sure I'd have finished it if it weren't for the Whiteley aspect, which led to a whole meta-level of sheer pleasure at watching Montgomery work. I really need to find out whether there is evidence of this as an actual textual connection. Then I need not to accidentally write a comparative literature dissertation.
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I have liked Caroline Stevermer lo these many years, because she was kind enough to write a fantasy novel set at my (dearly loved) college, lightly disguised. That said, my favorite of her books is the spectacular When the King Comes Home, which gives you an entire novel's worth of beautifully accurate details about the life of a painter in a vaguely Italian Renaissance fantasy world and then takes your breath away when you see where all those details have been leading.

But I have never been terribly fond of the epistolary Regency-ish-with-magic romances she writes with Patricia Wrede, Sorcery and Cecelia and so on. They aren't bad, I find them cheery, but they don't stick in my head.

This little book is unusual because it's a singly-authored children's piece set into the timeline of that romance series, and can be read entirely independently of the others. I can't recall the last time I've seen a series do that, where there are the main ones, for adults, and then a related children's book over here somewhere...

Anyhow, Frederick, who is an orphan, gets a place as a servant in the household of a prominent wizard, and discovers that the curse an enemy put on his master several years ago has not, in fact, been adequately vanquished. You may handily extrapolate the rest. It is a completely competent read, with pleasant if typecast characters, a piece of folklore I did not quite expect to turn up handled well, and some good description of the evil thing. I finished it twenty minutes ago, and had to look up the main character's name; that should tell you. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you like. For me it is the sort of thing that goes by neither unpleasantly nor too affectingly, rather like a familiar train ride-- the weather may change, and the houses out the window may have been renovated slightly since the last time I was in the area, but the same stations are there in the same order.

Honestly I would mostly recommend this either to Sorcery and Cecelia completists, or else to people who have reread Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones too recently to read it again and would like to read something of the same sort that is not actually as good or original but has all the same scenes about housework. I have no idea what a kid would think of it as I really can't extrapolate what I'd have thought of it as a kid-- it was simply not the sort of book I read back then. But it is certainly perfectly innocuous.
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This is the third of Jeanne Birdsall's books about the Penderwick family, but they each stand independently.

There are four Penderwick sisters, ranging in age from old enough to be Responsible For Everybody to an energetic five. They also have assorted relatives, a dear friend who is trying to cope with a terrible family situation, and a very memorable very large dog.

This book involves the three younger sisters and their aunt going to Maine for two weeks vacation, which means terrible spasms of guilt on the part of the oldest at not going along to Be Responsible, and terrible fear on the part of the next one down about her responsibilities as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). It's one of those books which does not seem tightly plotted but actually is when you get there, and which is full of the correct sort of small observed detail and the correct sort of mayhem of the type that happens on that kind of vacation (I was highly amused that the person who falls off the seawall was the aunt, and not any of the children).

Despite the fact that the first Penderwick book won the National Book Award, I could never really warm to it, or the second, but I kept feeling that Birdsall had something, and that at some point either she or I might click into seeing what it was. I am not sure which of us has changed, but this book was beautifully paced, had a great sense of place about a part of Maine I am fairly familiar with, and reminded me strongly of Hilary McKay's Casson family books, which is high praise (Saffy's Angel is a book I press copies of on people, for their own good). If you like non-cloying, friendly, gently funny family stories about genuinely nice people who have real and interesting problems without being overwhelmed by drama, this is a good entry in that genre. I still don't entirely believe in one of the middle sisters' writing habits, because she feels to me more like an example of the way people think children who want to be writers behave than of the way children who want to be writers do behave, but this didn't break the book for me, and anyhow my sample size of kids who want to be writers has been small and mostly consisting of me, so maybe it is more naturalistic than I suspect.

I suppose I should reread the first two and see whether they actually aren't as good, or whether I was in the wrong mood, or both. This one I can recommend unequivocally.

(I also see via flist that Hilary McKay has written a sequel to A Little Princess. Well. That will be interesting...)
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Ursula Vernon is an artist I am very fond of, for both her work with line and texture and her sense of humor. Her webcomic Digger, now finished and therefore available in its entirety, is one of my favorite comics; there was a period when it was one of I think three comics I was reading in English. If you haven't already, you should read Digger, which is hilarious, occasionally touching, and surprisingly pretty.

For a while she's also been doing these cute little kids' books about dragons. There are four out now (this is the fourth) and an unguessable number upcoming.

Honestly, I do not think the Dragonbreath series is Vernon's best work. They have an interesting format, kind of halfway between illustrated novel and comic book-- some pages slide in and out of being free-form panels-- but she's limited to black, white, and one color per book, and the art doesn't quite have the quirky glow she can get when she's really free to play. They are, however, enough fun that every so often I remember that there's probably a new one out and go look for it. I have read one, two, and four now, but not three, and this is not a series that suffers from not being perfectly sequential.

In this installment, Danny Dragonbreath (who is a gradeschool-age dragon) and his perpetually terrified friend Wendell (who is I think some kind of lizard) rescue an injured bat from a swimming pool intake, and naturally have to take it to Danny's cousin who works at the bat conservancy... hundreds of miles away in southern Mexico. That's not the problem. (Wendell to Danny's mother: "How are we taking the city bus to Mexico?" Danny's mother: "We have a very good bus system.")

The problem is, as one might expect, the giant bat monster/Mayan deity whose presence in the area could be a serious publicity coup for the conservancy, if only it weren't running off with Danny when the bat conservancy notices it. (Wendell to Danny's cousin: "We have to get him back! No one's going to sit with me in the cafeteria!" Danny's cousin, wearily: "Wendell, if we don't get him back, I will, personally, sit with you in the cafeteria.")

There are many good things about this book. It's cute, it has snappy dialogue, and of course Danny the dragon's cousin is, matter-of-factly (to the point where the book mentions but does not explain it) a genuine Feathered Serpent. However, it's-- okay, that? That is a giant hitting-you-over-the-head-with-an-ecological-message hammer that makes up most of this book, that is. BAT CONSERVANCY = GOOD, yes, we know that, I agree, now TELL A STORY. And the plotline isn't as, well, batshit as a couple of the previous installments-- I mean, the one with the ninja frogs, there was serious originality going on there, ninety percent of that book was unrelated to plot elements ever seen by mere mortals before. The plot here feels pretty thin, and there's only one thread, and there isn't much going on in the way of character development, not there is that much in these anyway, but.

I hope these eventually grow into being Vernon at her best, but this is not an improvement over the earlier two I've read. Still, if you like nifty brushwork pictures of bats, you will enjoy this. I will continue to read these occasionally when I remember they exist-- and to hope that she goes on and does something else as good as Digger at some point.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Being the fourth and last of the series which began with Dragon of the Lost Sea.

The sea is still lost, and the dragon princess Shimmer and her companions are still trying to deal with the intransigence of the Dragon King, the fact that the local human government has been taken over by a petty tyrant who is going to war with the dragons, the treachery of Shimmer's brother, and the various metaphysical damage Shimmer's party has done to various parts of the world in attempting to restore the sea (which by this time amounts to Large Problems).

This is a well-plotted, action-filled, and satisfying ending to a wonderful series. I don't think it's as strong a book individually as Dragon Cauldron, which had an amazing eerie numinous feel that this doesn't; also the war is, I believe, toned down some because this is for a younger audience. (There are just not as many casualties as I would expect given the progression of battle.) But it moves well, it gives us every moment that had to happen because of earlier events, as well as several bonus surprises, and it is still narrated by Monkey, which means it brings the snark.

If you're going to read this series, you should of course start with the first book. There are very few series where that is not the approach I recommend, and this is not one of them. Proceed in the assurance that it does stick the dismount, and that the quartet overall is unique, and very lovely.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Borrowed from [personal profile] nineweaving, with thanks.

This is a curate's egg of a book: parts of it are still good. Other parts not so much.

But the whole is of great historical value, because it is a contemporary account of a story that does not, I think, get told much these days. Certainly it does not get told much in America. In the U.S. one can grow up reading British children's books, and then one hears about children being evacuated to the countryside during the air raids of the Battle of Britain, but one does not hear much about the ones who were evacuated all the way to the U.S. and Canada.

Sabrina, whose diary this purports to be, and her brother James, are sent to upstate New York to stay with family friends. They are eleven and eight, old enough to know perfectly well that they may never see their parents, or England, again, and to know that the boat they travel on could be attacked, but not old enough to internalize that if the boat sinks it could kill them. It's an interesting age to have as the narrator, because of course the adults spend a fair amount of time talking over Sabrina, but also a fair amount of time talking to her, as she is a bright eleven. The intersection of what she hears and understands, hears and doesn't understand, is told and doesn't understand: this is all beautifully done.

There's the boat, which is the first half, and then there is settling into America. They are privileged children in both portions and nearly know it, privileged on the boat because they are traveling with a family friend (who is evacuating with her newborn son) and can afford to pay for a cabin, privileged on the land because they are going to friends who know their parents and are loving and generous. It goes as well as this sort of thing can go. It does not hurt them any less for that.

The problem, though, is that I cannot quite buy many of the aspects of Sabrina as narrator. She is a bit too naive, sometimes, a bit too knowing at others, and I can see too much of what the author thinks a Very Nice Girl should be like inside. And her diary is full of cute misspellings which is maddening and distracting and aggravating and just a bad idea. Things also maybe go a little too easily for them, a little too nicely. There is more than a minor touch of the Mary Sue, and also Sabrina and her brother behave a bit more rambunctiously than the way they think about things would indicate they should.

There is a good reason for that last, though, which is that the author had the opportunity to observe their outside behavior, but not their interior thoughts. She was the family friend with the baby who took them across the Atlantic, famous already as an author-- there is a moment where a Red Cross lady recognizes her and suddenly takes them all home to lunch instead of issuing them Red Cross food. Travers clearly loves these children (I am sure they were lovable) and therefore makes their faults ones the readers will, she hopes, find charming. (She is wrong.)

More of value as history than as fiction, then, I'd say, although still very readable (except those damn misspellings). Also be warned: this came out in 1941, and contains in it the attitudes towards people of color which one might regretfully expect of that era. It is not nasty-- as you may remember if you have ever read an unedited copy of Mary Poppins, Travers dealt in stereotypes which she intended to be polite and kind, rather than in Not Our Sort, Dear-- but the white people in this book have an unexamined deep sense that they are superior and that is all. Ah well, on this subject books fall into the categories of bad for its era, standard for its era, and good for its era. This is very much standard.

I am not sure why this fell thoroughly out of Children's Books That Get Reprinted when a lot of the rest of Travers still firmly sits there, but it does seem to be quite obscure. Unless everyone read it but me. It's probably the cuteness. I have no particular explanation otherwise as I was certainly given far worse things to read as a kid, and less educational. Not remotely as good as the Mary Poppins books, though.

Travers has gone onto my list of people I should read a biography of, because I find upon Googling that she did not die until, good heavens, 1996. 1899-1996, and first published by A.E., and a friend of Yeats. I had no idea. Now that must have been a life, and I am curious.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A fairy tale I had somehow missed in the phase when I was going through and reading lots of George Macdonald for the first time; mind you, that was before Project Gutenberg.

The plot is fairly traditional. There is of course a christening curse, and it is that the princess will lose all her gravity. The most interesting aspects of the book are the implications of this, which are carried through pretty thoroughly-- not only does she float, but she has nothing grave in her character; she cannot cry, cannot love, and greets every situation with a laugh. There's a note missing in her laugh, too, the note that comes from the possibility of eventual sadness.

And of course there's a prince, and they spend a great deal of time in a lake together, because when she is in water the princess is pulled down by it as other people are, and also comes her closest to human emotions. And the way he finds to save her is more of a test than this sort of story usually has.

This is one of those books where there are some wonderful images and some really well-thought-out things and some genuine emotions in it, but it just does not move me. I may be too old, or too annoyed by the totally extraneous labeling of the caricatures of metaphysicians who attend the princess as Exotically Oriental, or I may be sick of Macdonald's poetry, or I may just be in a bad mood.

Or expecting too much of Macdonald, who has written several things I find much more beautiful. Lilith is one of my comfort rereads, and I know that apparently these days not many people like Phantastes, but I always have.

Ah well. There is plenty more of his catalog for me to work through, now that vast quantities of it are online and I am no longer dependent on the caprice of libraries and the things at the back of the piles on the shelves of used bookstores.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I never know how well known Molly Gloss is. Her work is so unclassifiable, is the thing, you get the explicitly Quaker science fiction of The Dazzle of Day, or else whatever you might call the magnificently indescribable Wild Life (one of those books where nothing I can say will tell you, go read it). Apparently her last two have both been Westerns or something (I have one of them here to read later).

This is her first novel and so far her only children's, and I heard of it because Ursula Le Guin wrote a review of it lo these years ago, which you can read in Dancing at the Edge of the World, and it is a very complimentary review. So I finally found a copy of Outside the Gates.

There are the Gates, and a boy has been put outside them, because he has a Shadow, and the people are frightened of it. His Shadow is not to speak the languages of animals, because animals speak mostly by smell and other things a human cannot duplicate, but to befriend animals, to know them the way they know themselves. In the woods there are other people, who have also been put out, though not many, and one, who works weather, becomes the boy's father, until someone comes whose Shadow truly is a Shadow, truly is dark, and truly has power.

This sounds like many other books, I know. It isn't. This is a book with no word out of its proper place, full of the thing Molly Gloss does better than any writer I can think of, the intensely self-contained, practical silence of the wilderness when it does not have much to do with human people. It is also one of those stories which looks simple, and then twists on you: it is as simple as a stone, or a bone, things like that, if you see what I mean. There is some kinship here to Le Guin, to A Wizard of Earthsea, but this reads as though Gloss took that beautiful book and read it and swallowed it and then took some ideas from it in another direction entirely, honed them down to the pith of themselves, in language so spare it has the internal effect, sometimes, of silence.

And yet I do think I could have read this at the age I first read A Wizard of Earthsea, seven or eight, or younger; there is nothing here that I would not have gotten then, there is nothing here I think would be too subtle for a younger kid.

I recommend it of course to anyone. It will stay with you.
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I think it was the Oz books that introduced me to the concept of fanfiction. Because when I was a kid at the library, there were the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, which were (mostly) pretty good, and there were the Oz books by Ruth Plumly Thompson, which were (mostly) okay. And they had a lot of the same characters, but not the same mind at work or the same authorial sensibilities. I don't remember whether I asked anyone why there was a series of books that had two apparently unrelated authors; I think I just assumed you could do that, by sending your manuscript in to a publisher in the usual way, since so clearly people did. Eventually I found out about licensing and shared worlds and spinoff series and film novelizations and all the various permutations that publishing goes through when more than one author is writing the same world or characters. But the Oz books were first, for me.

I never knew there were more than two authors, though. Baum is available everywhere and Thompson is not uncommon, but the other Oz stuff that existed when I was a kid was and is pretty rare (the more recent stuff is quite findable). I heard of this book through Mari Ness, and grabbed it when I saw it at the library.

It is completely acceptable fanfic. It does that thing people sometimes do when they've just started writing fanfic where they have to include every single bit of arcane canon knowledge they can shove in there, so that you know they know; and Snow has not learned that every scene of a book should in an ideal world have a purpose for existing. But it seizes on elements of the original Baum that I enjoyed, and riffs on them-- the most interesting antagonists in the Oz books are the Phanfasms, who are powerful and evil shapeshifters, and the Mimics here are basically their cousins-- and it has fairly tight plotting, and a clear attempt at the type of sense-of-wonder imagery that makes this sort of book worthwhile when it works. It does not quite work here, but he tried.

The prose is utterly pedestrian, though. No life at all.

So, B+ for effort, well-intentioned, and if I saw it at the Pit of Voles (which is where it would end up nowadays) I'd write the author a kindly note urging work with a good beta and hoping for continued evolution. If I'd read this as a kid I'd probably have liked it a fair bit better, but the library roulette did not work out that way.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
There are reasons this is not one of E. Nesbit's more famous books.

In point of fact, if I had been handed this and told it was written by L. Frank Baum as a remix of The Sea Fairies... hang on, I need to do a little bibliographical work here.

Right. The Sea Fairies was published in 1911. Wet Magic was published in 1913. Oh dear. They are similar enough that I actively hope Nesbit had not read the Baum.

At any rate, both of these books are fantasies about children who are taken under the sea by the mermaids, and what they see there. Baum's child is allowed to see the undersea fairyland because she is special, but Nesbit's five children earn their passage: they rescue a captured mermaid from a circus. By far the best parts of the book center around this rescue, in which the mermaid is haughty and vicious to them, and they do the right thing anyway, only to find after they've dumped her back into the ocean that the nastiness, and indeed every story that has ever drowned a sailor, is caused by a malady that affects mermaids when they get too dry, and that under ocean they are, even, physically different. The fine gradations of how annoying the mermaid is depending on what the air is like are very well done.

But the rest of this is a hot mess, several books shoved together in one and several plots; a lost-child-finding-parents plot, a war plot, a plot about characters out of books coming alive which depends far too much on one having read the books in question (and yet, paradoxically, far too much on the protagonists not having read them). Any one of the threads might have worked, but as it is the novel is too busy to produce solid, memorable characters and too crowded for real emotional tension. There are some very lovely individual bits round the edges, like the pot of water that pours the source of all rivers, or the fact that everyone always forgets that the water of oblivion tastes wonderful, but overall I cannot recommend this, even to profound Nesbit-enjoyers.

Nor, sadly, can I recommend the Baum, which is a book I treasured deeply as a small child and then discovered, upon growing up and learning more about sea life, to be full of terrible and book-destroying puns. I mean I like puns, if clever, and those were right out.

Therefore if you are in need of a book full of undersea magic, and the ocean the way one wants it, I suggest Jane Yolen's Neptune Rising. This one is not worth your time.
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This is an early Moomin picture book, notable for two reasons: its divergences from the way people are in the novels (the Hemulen loves housecleaning and the Fillyjonk is kind of creepy, which is brainbreaking), and its absolutely amazing use of cutwork and holes in the book.

You don't have to like the Moomins or know who these people are to appreciate the illustrations. The simple story involves Moomintroll looking for Little My, whom everyone believes is lost; he and the Mymble travel through forests, mountains, and caves, and each double-page spread has a different set of cutouts in the paper. All of the cutouts work both with the page after and with the page before. Some of them go down multiple layers.

So you'll get a spread of a dark forest path, in which the spaces between two trees are cutouts that show the next page, which is the meadow just outside the forest-- you can see the space outside the forest through the trees just as you would in real life. And there's a further cutout you can see just a part of, going down a second page, which gives you just one ray of sunshine.

Flip the page, and you get the meadow; the tree cutouts are now looking back into the picture of the dark forest we just left, and the full extent of the sun cutout is revealed, so we can see the whole meadow bathed in sunlight.

Every single illustration in the book is that well planned, or better. The compositions are arranged such that bits of the picture you didn't know were significant pop into relief in the cutout the second you flip the page.

It is such a tour de force that it almost feels petty to mention that the translated text is terribly rhymed and scanned, and also doesn't make very much sense. Honestly, I'd ignore it entirely-- you can follow what plot there is perfectly well from the pictures. And should. This is one of those picture books everyone can examine and be dazzled by.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Oh hey I finished one of the three separate Laurence Yep childrens' fantasy series I was in the middle of! I feel obscurely smug. (I have been thwarted on the other two by City of Ice not existing yet and there being no copies in this town of Dragon Steel.)

I think this is the first entire series I've read since starting this book-a-day thing. I could have forgotten something, though.

Anyhow, you probably know not to start a trilogy with the third book, but this is a good third book, a step above either the first or the second. Tom, the protagonist, is apprenticed to Mr. Hu, the tiger. Mr. Hu is the Guardian of the egg of the legendary phoenix, which has the power to create peace in the world, but can only be born when there is already peace in the world. Well, theoretically... And of course the forces of evil want the egg. The first book had a feeling of being rushed, of never quite taking the time to breathe and just take in the sights of the fascinating Chinese mythology; the second book was a distinct improvement, an undersea dragon kingdom full of intriguing color and texture.

This one has actual character development. Also, it's about a war, a war literally to hold the sky up. Possibly because the characters are slightly older than in the first book, possibly because the subject matter is more serious, and possibly just because Yep has had three books to get used to these people, this has a feel of solidity and depth to it that the other two didn't attain; it's still a romp more than an epic, and the moral decisions are still pretty obvious, but this time the plot is not an express train shoving you from point A to point B.

I think the first book is weak enough that I would advise beginning with the second (it would be easy enough to figure out what happened before it), but I recommend the second and third as pleasant light adventure reading with fun mythical creatures. I like them now and would have loved them to pieces when I was eight.

I see City of Ice is due out June 7th. That will be nice.

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