Wednesday, February 17, 2010

At Last, The Chrestomanci Post

Okay, here it is, that Chrestomanci post I've been talking about.

Chrestomanci is a title held by a character named Christopher Chant who appears in six books and four short stories by Diana Wynne Jones. The universe of the book is made up of multiple worlds in which magic may or may not exist to varying degrees. The person who holds the title Chrestomanci is always an enchanter with nine lives, and his function is to "police" the use of magic. He's a government employee, actually.

The novels are available these days in three volumes, each containing two books. The short stories, I believe, are out of print. I got a copy from a library and then bought a beautiful paperback from an on-line dealer.

I have to admit, I found some technical glitches with these books:

Some may find this nitpicky, but I noticed from the very first book that Wynne Jones uses a noticable number of "echoes." Echoes occur when an author uses a word two or more times within a couple of sentences, making the second word strikingly noticeable to the reader. Echoes break flow, unlike parallel construction, which sort of forces flow to follow a certain flow. (Echo!) Echoes are usually caught by copy editors, which is why I know about them. Copy editors have caught (most) of the ones I've made in the past.

Chrestomanci is one of those Pimpernel/Wimsey like characters who appear to be far less powerful than they are. In Chrestomanci's case, he is often described as looking vague or appearing to be vague. That is a sign, for the people who know him, that he is on top of his game. The word "vague" is used to describe him so frequently that it becomes an annoying mannerism--like when a character is constantly adjusting her glasses or rolling his eyes. I also sometimes wondered if it really described anything. What the heck does vague mean in this context?

Some people might think that some of the boy main characters--Cat, young Christopher, and the Italian kid whose name I can't remember--seemed a bit alike. And some of the books include explanation scenes at the end, sort of like when the detective explains everything at the end of a mystery novel.

But as I said, those are all technical things. What is interesting and attention-grabbing about these books might be described as their more conceptual aspects.

Chrestomanci is a charismatic, adult character in a children's book. However, in most of his books, he is not the main character. The main characters are always children who are discovering who they really are. In fact, in the only book in which he is the main character, Chrestomanci is a child. What's more, though Chrestomanci appears to fix problems related to magic, he usually cannot do so without the assistance of child characters. He is not a grown-up who simply waves a magic wand and makes everything okay. There is no doubt whatsoever that these are kids' books, in spite of his presence.

Though these books always involve child characters discovering that they have magical abilities, and though there is a recurring adult character, the books are very different. Yes, the world building is the same, but the storylines are different, and the settings are often much different.

Chrestomanci is used differently in different books and stories. In one book, the young Christopher Chant is the main character. In another, the adolescent Christopher Chant is important, but not the first-person narrator. (I believe that was the only book with a first-person narrator.) In other books the adult Chrestomanci is a major player. In some he doesn't appear until more than halfway through the book. In one of the short stories, he doesn't appear at all--he is mentioned twice. As a writer, I love the idea of using the same character in different ways. I love trying out a first-person narrator after having used a third for so many books.

These six books are not a serial, meaning we're not talking one giant story told over six books, which must be read in a particular order or nothing makes sense. Though Wynne Jones is supposed to have suggested an order for reading the books, and they are available now as Volumes I, II, and III, suggesting an order, I actually read the most recently written book first, then Volumes II, I, and one of the books in Volume III. I can't remember at what point I read the short stories. My point (echo!) being, a reader can truly just enter this world and move about in it because the stories are each unique.

Power is not related to beauty in these books. Though Chrestomanci, himself, is an attractive man, his love interest is a plain girl (and then woman) who is a very powerful enchantress. She is very necessary to him. The children they have together are not traditionally physically attractive children. I love this.

As a reader who came late to fantasy and still, as a general rule, doesn't care for what's termed high fantasy, I'd have to say that reading these books was educational. These books aren't just a hodge podge of fantastical gimmicks. Character, plot, and setting, elements that are important to all fiction, really need to be seriously addressed in a fantasy novel. And it seems to me that they are here.

On the other hand, these were my comfort books, and perhaps I just want to think well of them.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

A Little Something About Steampunk

Guide to Literary Agents did a post last month called Everything You Would’ve Asked About Steampunk, Had You Known It Existed. Guest columnist Matt Betts quoted agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe as saying that steampunk is "not just magic with things just appearing out of thin air, but it's people inventing things—even if these steam-powered/clockwork run machines are ultimately too fantastical to ever actually exist in real life, it feels like...well maybe they really can. That's probably the kid in me wishing for that, but who cares, right?"

This reminded me of a Garrison Keillor column at Salon, in which he talked about how there used to be a romantic element to building and creating things that seems to have been lost the last couple of decades or so. Perhaps steampunk, particularly steampunk for children, brings back some of that romance.


Friday, January 08, 2010

I Have Only A Vague Idea What This Is

Oz and Ends just did two posts on urban fantasy. I can't say I've read a great deal of the stuff, certainly not enough to know that it requires some romance. I thought urban fantasy just meant I was safe from the icky parts of high fantasy--wizards and dragons and princesses and fairies.

Or maybe I should say that I thought that in urban fantasy if there were any wizards and dragons and princesses and fairies, they'd be much cooler than they are in high fantasy.


Monday, January 04, 2010

My Wolfie Boyfriend

If left to my own devices, I will avoid reading romances. I think this is because they generally all end the same way, and how girl gets boy isn't all that compelling a storyline for me. So under normal conditions I would never have picked up Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater because it's a paranormal romance. However, last summer I stumbled upon the trailer for Shiver, thought it was lovely, and picked up the book when I happened upon it at the library.

I am not the first person to notice the similarities between Shiver and Twilight--star-crossed paranormal boyfriend and teenage girl, paranormal boyfriend drives teenage girl to school, paranormal boyfriend watches teenage girl do homework, paranormal boyfriend spends chaste nights with teenage girl in her bedroom. Shiver just does a lot of things better than Twilight.

Basic story: A few years before the start of our story, our main character, Grace, was dragged from her tire swing by a pack of wolves who were seriously hungry. She notices one particular wolf, who also notices her, and ends up saving her. In the intervening years, he often shows up at the back of her yard where they watch each other, developing a relationship, so to speak. Then, sure enough, you guessed it, he turns up one day on her deck as a real, naked boyfriend! And then you go on from there. Will Grace or won't Grace get to keep Sam in her life?

Grace in Shiver is a far more dynamic character than Bella in Twilight. She does things, she helps others, she directs the action at various points. She even has a sense of humor. Once you accept the werewolf thing, Sam is a far more realistic character than what's his name...oh, yeah. Edward. He is far from a picture of male perfection. Grace and Sam are a balanced couple, one partner doesn't have all the power. This book is not as sexually charged as the original Twilight, but the sex is more realistic and dignified than in the Twilight series overall. (I'm still cringing over the begging-for-sex scene in one of the later books.)

I have to say I still found some of the love scenes a little long. I felt as if I were just treading water while waiting for more wolves to show up. But, still, Stiefvater does some intriguing things here. She makes stereotypical nasty rich kids more interesting without actually making them nicer. We've got an intense father/son relationship. The readers in this story work particularly well. For me, characters in books who love books usually don't work. There's something fake or maybe improving about them. But in Shiver the readers are tragic because they won't always have reading in their lives. I like tragic much more than I like improving.

Thematically, Shiver works very well as a YA book. It explores these teenagers' places within their "families" as well as their movement away from their families. And then, of course, there's the whole human transforming into wolves in a werewolf story just as children transform into adults during adolescence. What will the kids in Shiver end up being?

I was actually sorry to learn there will be a sequel to Shiver. Why mess with a good thing? Is there really more to say about this situation? Well, I'll probably find out.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Less Canoodling, More Dogging

It is Cybil season, and while I am not cybilizing, myself, I am fondly recalling days when I was. Thus, when I stumbled upon Bloodhound: Beka Cooper, Book Two by Tamora Pierce, I jumped right on it because I liked the first book in the series, Terrier, which was nominated for a Cybil...oh, I don't know. Back the year I was a panelist for scifi/fantasy.

The Beka Cooper books have a lot of things going against them as far as I'm concerned--made up worlds and words and names and societies. (No fairies or dragons so far, thank God.) What makes them so very readable for me is that they are police procedurals. Beka and her companions are "dogs," her society's equivalent of police officers, with crimes to solve. In this world, the dogs and the rats (or criminals) are sometimes not that different. But you see that in police procedurals of all kinds.

Bloodhound wasn't as strong a book for me as Terrier for two reasons: 1. Beka is given a love interest, and 2. I noticed a lot more attention to details.

The love interest seemed like a diversion that took away from the plot. Yes, we don't know if the love interest is a good guy or a bad guy but that wasn't enough to keep me from wondering when we were going to get away from Dale touching Beka here and there so we could move back to the story.

That story also kept stopping so we could get descriptions of clothing and jewelry--how many earrings this guy wore in his right earlobe versus how many and what kind he wore in his left, what kind of brocade was on this or that tunic. Sure, detail enriches a piece of writing, but there is a tipping point after which the reader is just buried in the stuff.

We also got more talk about who was sleeping with whom than I think we needed. I didn't think it supported the story or moved it along. Okay, this is a world that is cool with sex. I got that early on. I wanted to move on to the crime!!

Now, I was also a little put off by a bit of discussion of gender issues, as in some talk on the place of women. I like a world where women crack skulls and no one talks about whether or not they should be doing it. But evidently these Beka Cooper books are part of an extended world that Pierce has created, and in this world's future things will be different for women. Pierce discusses the "Cult of the Gentle Mother" in an interview at The Torch Online.

Clearly, I found this outing with Beka a little disappointing, but not so much so that I won't be looking for Mastiff, the final book in this trilogy, which will come out sometime next year.

Bloodhound has been nominated for a Cybil this year.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Cybils Fantasy/SciFi Titles And Authors

Sheila Ruth has the list of 2009 Fantasy/SciFi Cybils Nominees up at Wands and Worlds. I noticed some familiar titles and authors. Among them:

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.

Ottoline Goes To School by Chris Riddell.

Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman.

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run by Michael Hemphill and Sam Riddleburger.

Authors I've read with nominated titles I haven't read:

Joni Sensel, Jonathan Stroud, Anne Ursu, M. T. Anderson, Angie Sage, Derek Landy, Michael Buckley, P.J. Haarsma, and Holly Black.

And, finally, I noticed that Pamela F. Service is nominated for Camp Alien. It's been years since I've read anything by Service, but she is memorable at Chez Gauthier for Stinker From Space.

For someone who isn't a major fantasy fan, I seem to have read a lot of it.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Are Formulas Important For Some Reason?

You may have noticed that I'm on a little graphic novel kick this fall. That's why I picked up Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi.

What really struck me about this book is how incredibly formulaic it is. The word "rigidly" might apply. In a prelude, a child sees her parent killed. At the real story opening, the rest of the family is heading off to a creepy new home (new homes are always bad news) that has been in the family for years. (As I was reading this today, I thought about how these days, old family homes are probably sold to create new subdivisions.) Immediately, the kids find a of jewelry, are led into a strange world, and have to start a quest to save their surviving parent. (Did she seem just a little bit bitchie to anyone else?) A mysterious and brilliant ancestor figures into the story. (I'm not sure if that last part is original to this formula or if I just saw it in The Spiderwick Chronicles movie.) Some cute characters are thrown in as helpers.

Maybe there is some reason why adhering to formulas like this are important in children's literature. Isn't repetition of words and sounds supposed to help them learn to read? Maybe reading the same formula/pattern/storyline over and over again assists them in some way I've just never heard about.

As luck would have it, David Elzey has just reviewed the second book in this series at The Excelsior File. He liked it a great deal more than I liked the first one. In fact, if you do just a little bit of digging around on the Internet, you'll find that this is quite a well-regarded series.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bad Vikings! Bad, Bad, Vikings!

I picked up The Humming of Numbers when I saw it on the library shelf for one reason and one reason alone--I recognized the author, Joni Sensel's name from The Spectacle. Her book is a well-written historical romance with fantasy elements.

Aidan, an Irish monk-in-training, runs into Lana, the illegitimate daughter of the local lord, at his monastery where she's been sent to shape up. Though Aidan tries to conform to monastic life because he really wants to work there as a scribe, he has this little problem with what he calls hearing numbers--he associates numbers with people and things. Lana, on the other hand, doesn't make much of an attempt to conform to early Christianity. She's a sort of woods witch.

Aidan, of course, is seriously tempted by her. He manages to put her out of his mind much of the time because the day after they meet, Vikings arrive to do their raping and pillaging thing at the monastery and the surrounding villages.

Two things struck me about this story:

1. I found myself...ah...responding strongly to those freaking Vikings. I started thinking of them as Dark Age Nazis. I've read that Vikings raided because of economic need and that, eventually, many of them gave up taking slaves and robbing and settled in Ireland and northern France. What? It took them generations to think of emigration?

Vikings destroying an Irish monastary is kind of a classic situation if you've ever done any research on the tenth century. (Which I have, many years ago, for a book that's on life support somewhere here in the office.) They really seemed to love those places. So, for me the basic situation in The Humming of Numbers was very realistic.

2. One problem I have with romantic thrillers is that it's hard for me to believe that individuals would think of romance while they're running for their lives or dealing with death and dismemberment, etc. While The Humming of Numbers doesn't involve the kind of eroticism you find in Twilight, I did feel that Aidan's feelings for Lana were beyond his control and inconvenient. Thus, the romance here worked better for me than it does in many books.

I think The Humming of Numbers is stronger as a historical novel than it is as a fantasy. That's fine for me, since I prefer historical fiction to fantasy. I don't know if fantasy readers might be a bit disappointed, though.

Suggestion: This might be a good addition to a middle school/high school library that needs historical fiction to accompany classes.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Good vs. Evil In Fantasy

Joni Sensel raised an interesting question last month over at The Spectacle. Is it true that all great fantasy is about good vs. evil?

I immediately thought of my body count post from a few days back. Two of those three series that culminated in a book with extended battles were, I believe, heavily into good vs. evil. I think the most sophisticated of the three, in my humble opinion, was the one written for the youngest age group, The Underland Chronicles. In those books there is no obvious evil doer. Author Suzanne Collins has been very clear in interviews and public appearances that she was (and is) interested in war. That is entirely different from good vs. evil.

Good vs. evil is compelling, but it can also be simplistic.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Final Books With Body Counts

I finished The Last Olympian today. I'm seeing a pattern with the concluding volumes of serial fantasy thrillers:

Gregor and the Code of Claw--Fight, fight, fight. Die, die, die.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--Fiiiiight, fight, fight, fight. Die! Die! Diiiiiiiiie!

The Last Olympian--Fight...Fight...Fight. Fight, fight, fight. Die...Die. die, die, die.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Bears Are So Much Better Than Fairies. And Dragons.

I should have hated Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. It's set in one of these fantasy worlds where everyone has made-up sounding names (possibly because they are). It seems as if it might be an allegory, which try my patience. And the characters address each other in contrived ways, referring to mams and babbies and suchlike. (Oops. It's catching.)

But I didn't hate Tender Morsels. Not at all. Reading Tender Morsels is an experience. It's a dense, meaty book, chuck full of stuff, and it took me close to a week to get through it. All the time I was reading it, I felt I was being exposed to something very unique, that I was most fortunate to have stumbled upon this title.

And there were no fairies or dragons! The bears, on the other hand, were quite riveting.

And to think I'd been looking at this book at my library for months and would never have picked it up (it being a fantasy), if not for the Brits getting all in a lather over it.

If you missed Meg Rosoff's take on Tender Morsels back in April when she was serving as a judge for the Battle of the Kids' Books, check it out. "I knew almost immediately that I was reading something utterly astonishing."

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Friday, May 15, 2009

My Dysfunctional Fantasy Family

I had only just started reading The Witches of Dredmore Hollow by Riford McKenzie when I realized it was one of those books about a kid learning he has strange powers and some quite awful family members. Charlie Bone and The Fetch come to mind. Even Harry Potter does a variation, though in his case the wretched relatives are the ones who aren't related to his newly found mysterious powers.

I can understand readers' attraction to stories about seemingly run-of-the-mill folk discovering they have magical powers. We all want to be special, right? But what's with all the books about nasty kin?

I have a theory, of course. And here it is.

I started thinking that all these dysfunctional fantasy family stories sound similar to the stories I hear from so many of my friends about their families. My friends just can't do magic. And then I started thinking about all those family drama novels with mothers who are like witches but different and dads who are up to all kinds of no good. No magic there, either. And then there are the adult memoirs, which are almost always about something grim, and no one has any super powers. And in between the kids' dysfunctional family stories and all this adult angst, you get the YA realistic problem novels where teenagers find out that life stinks and there's nothing they can do about it.

So the dysfunctional fantasy family stories are just the child version of all these other misery stories. Because they're for kids, we include magic powers for the child protagonists so they can deal with their creepy family members, thus giving the child readers an unrealistic sense of hope.

Enjoy it while you can, kiddies.

Training Report: One segment yesterday. Two today. Could have been worse. I am now up to the second half of April in the book, making me less than a month behind where I want to be. So that's good.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mom As Powerful Immortal

What better time then Mother's Day to discuss a book in which a pivotal figure is a go-to Mom who really can fix, if not everything, a whole lot?

Mothstream by Philip Reeve with illustrations by David Wyatt is the third in the Larklight series. This series is particularly notable, I think, because its third book is as good as its first. Reeve isn't running out of ideas or humor.

When I read Starcross, the second Larklight book, I wondered if kids would get the humor. (I know, I know. I'm always wondering about that.) I think that Mothstorm may actually be more accessible to young readers. If so, that may be because of all the focus on Mother.

In the Larklight series, Art and Myrtle's mother is some kind of immortal being who has created the life forms across our universe and lived for millions of years in various of her creations' bodies. She has now chosen to become a human woman, a wife, and a mother. She has done this in an alternative Victorian world in which the British Empire has extended into space by way of ships that look a whole lot like the ones used to maintain that empire in the world we know.

When Her Majesty's holdings are threatened by another immortal being very much like Mother but nowhere near as ladylike, her kids, Art and Myrtle, turn to dear old Mum for the wherewithall to once again save the day.

Mothstorm is very much a female-oriented book. You have a heroic mother/creator. You have an evil female antagonist who has enslaved a race of women warriors. You have the scrappy daughter of a missionary. You have a youngish (and inept) Queen Victoria. And you have Myrtle, that wonderful, walking stereotype of a nineteenth century British young lady who has a clever and extremely funny storyline this time around.

Art and Myrtle looking for Mother, hoping to save Mother, and relying on Mother gives this book something that kids can follow and want to pursue, whether or not they get every nineteenth century joke.

Mothstorm was published back in 2008. I'm not aware of its receiving the same kind of buzz the first book in the series did. I hope people aren't losing interest or simply not noticing another Larklight book.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Maybe My Favorite So Far

A month or so ago, someone at one of my listservs who hadn't read any of the Percy Jackson books asked if they were any good. A number of people responded. Not one of them had anything bad to say about the books or their author, Rick Riordan.

I won't say that that's unheard of at a listserv. But, in my experience, it's not what you'd call the norm.

I'm definitely a Percy Jackson fan. I'm definitely a Rick Riordan fan, too, because, for the most part, this guy is able to maintain his level of play. I think he also does a better than average job of creating unique, individual adventures for each book within the context of his overall serial story.

With his fourth P.J. book, The Battle of the Labyrinth, we have another quest. A quest ought to make for some narrative drive, and it does here. Once again, the author does some clever things with mythology.

I think one of the things Riordan is particularly good at is avoiding common pitfalls associated with particular story lines. For instance, he brings in some teen relationship angst in Labyrinth without putting up any neon signs announcing, "Hey, look at me! I am more than a fantasy/thriller writer! I can do romance, too!" He even dabbled in some environmentalism in this book without going all heavy cliched message.

The Battle of the Labyrinth and it's companion books are well-done adventures. The next, and final, book in the series, The Last Olympian, will be published in May. For those who can't wait, an "auxillary book," The Demigod Files, will be out in February.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Perhaps Some Day Werewolves Will Be The New Vampires

Colleen at Chasing Ray interviewed Martin Millar, whose Lonely Werewolf Girl has been nominated for a Cybil in the Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction Category. The interview is part of the 2008 Winter Blog Blast Tour.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Okay, This One Was Good

Though I've enjoyed some of Neil Gaiman's work, I'm not what you might call a Gaiman Groupie. I'm not enthralled by everything he does.

His new novel, The Graveyard Book, is really good, though.

The book begins with a multiple murder, for those of us who enjoy getting right into the action. The one survivor, a toddler, ah, well, toddles off and ends up in an old cemetary where he is taken in by ghosts, adopted by a couple who've been members of the spirit class for a few hundred years, and given the run of the place. He's raised by the cemetary dwellers in the graveyard, the only save place for him because his family's murderer is still looking for him.

Personally, I think that's enough of a description to hook anyone. But I will add that the book is structured in what are pretty much short stories (Gaiman says so, too, in an interview with Jessa Crispin, which is really more him talking to her than her interviewing him), each one an adventure with our protagonist at a different age. And there's a lot of dark humor about the dead.

I have a couple of nitpicks. One, how did Bod know to go to a pawn shop or even how to find one when he left the graveyard to try to raise some money? Two, I found the art work odd. There's quite a bit of it, when you consider this is a novel, which is just fine. But the details in the early illustrations gave me the impression that the book might be set in the early twentieth century. It's definitely contemporary. Plus Bod is described as dressed in a winding sheet in the text early on, but he's shown in clothes in the illustrations.

But, yes, that is nitpicking.

The Graveyard Book is a Cybils nominee in the Fantasy and Science Fiction (Middle Grade) category. I think middle grade is a better description of it than YA, which is how it's categorized at my local library.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Skeleton Buddy Book

The Bony One is back in a new adventure, Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire. (By Derek Landy.)

I liked the first book, and I liked this one, too. I had some trouble working out who the bad guys were and just what was going on at first. But with Skulduggery books, the main interest is the repartee between the buddy main characters, the ageless skeleton detective/sorcerer Skulduggery Pleasant and his apprentice, Stephanie Edgley, who has renamed herself Valkyrie Cain. (Sort of like Beyonce and Sasha Fierce.) Enjoying them carried me along until I was up to speed again.

Stephanie/Valkyrie is twelve (or maybe thirteen in this second book, I'm not sure), and that's a pivotal age in kid books. It's the youngest age at which authors can pull off having their child characters take part in adult-like adventures with any degree of believability. Valkyrie is more believable than many fantasy protagonists because author Landy came up with a duplicate to leave in her place at home, which explains why she's able to have adventures without her parents wrecking things by, say, having her locked up. She also learns that she's descended from magical folk, which lends some logic to her being able to do things like create fireballs. (Assuming you can accept the logic behind magical folk, themselves.)

Finding out you're special is common in kid fantasies. (You know, like Harry Potter.) Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm just saying.

Though Skulduggery is a marvelous, clever, anti-heroic hero, there's no doubt that Valkyrie is the main character in Playing with Fire. Which is exactly as it should be, because this is a kids' book!

The Skulduggery Pleasant website is one of the best book sites I've seen. Many of them are lame or at least tedious. And many of the sites for popular books (like this one) are filled with bells and whistles and not much else. This one actually has the things I want to know about easily accessible--The Books, The World, The Author. (Watch out for The Extras, though. I got caught in some kind of loop that kept my computer desperately opening pages while making a horrendous noise as if it were about to go into space.) In The World, you'll find a great interview with Skulduggery.

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire has been nominated for a Cybil.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Just Who Is Our Innocent Little Man?

Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish is the second volume in his Monster Blood Tattoo serial. And make no mistake, this is a serial. Though the main character reaches the end of his journey in the first book, The Foundling, it's clear that the book is not a completed story. The second book has a climactic event, but no resolution. Plus a lot of characters are introduced in Lamplighter who don't do a great deal, which suggests to me that we'll be seeing them in the next book. Lady Dolours, for instance, is featured on the cover but plays virtually no role in this book. And, finally, the lengthy Explicarium/Glossary at the end of the book includes many entries referring readers back to Book One.

To enjoy these books, you need to accept the fact that this is a serial and not fight it. So go read the first book before you start this one.

Monster Blood Tattoo takes place in a world perhaps comparable to 17th/18th century Europe, though a 17th/18th century Europe overrun with monsters with whom humans are in constant conflict. A whole array of different types of human monster fighters exist, many of them having subjected themselves to surgical procedures that will give them inhuman powers. A human who has killed a monster gets tattooed with the monster's blood.

The Foundling was a journey story in which our main character, the orphan Rossamund, travels to Wintersmill where he is to train as a lamplighter, one of the people who light lamps along the highway late in the day and then put them out early in the morning. A journey story has a built-in narrative drive, you could say. Plus The Foundling had a marvelous character in the monster fighter for hire, Europe, with whom Rossamund falls in.

Lamplighter is about identity. Rossamund is becoming a lamplighter. Is he also a monster lover and thus a criminal? Why is he so strong? Who is he? That's interesting, but not necessarily something that moves a story along. His lamplighter training is very military in nature and takes place in a military-type fortress. Military training doesn't have the built-in narrative drive of a journey story. What we get here is not very exciting training broken up with fantastic monster attacks. (From what I've heard, that's similar to real military life--unexciting preparation broken up by all-too-exciting engagements.) I mean, really fantastic monster attacks. The last one was especially good, and I didn't see it coming.

The plot for the entire series does thicken in this volume. Someone within the military is creating monsters, though we don't know why. The bad guys appear to be...bureaucrats. Though we don't know, yet, what they have to gain.

The world of Monster Blood Tattoo is very elaborate, with creatures and all kinds of invented job categories among the humans as well as an invented culture within which they live. I found the reading this time around a little more complex. I had to use the glossary quite frequently. I don't think I even knew there was one in the first book until I finished. The backflap says Cornish worked fifteen years creating Half-Continent in which the story takes place. I can believe it.

As I was reading the book, I couldn't help but think how difficult it must have been to edit. Part of an editor's job is to look for inconsistencies and to make sure the world the author has created--whether it's an elaborate new one as in Monster Blood Tattoo or a grade school world we might know today--is believable. In addition to all the different types of monsters and monster fighters (some of whom are called different things within the military), this book uses invented countries, roads, weapons, holidays, days of the week and months of the year. Someone had to keep track of all that and make sure it made sense within the context of the book. I hope he wasn't trying to work on any other books at the same time.

One other interesting point about this book--the women. The world of Monster Blood Tattoo seems to be male dominated. All but one of the lamplighters is a man. Women appear as nurses and cooks and innkeepers. And yet you also have these incredibly powerful women monster fighters. Killers. The men in the story respect and fear them. Personally, I love women who kick ass, and the women who do so in this serial are a big draw for me.

While I can't say I was as big a fan of Lamplighter as I was of The Foundling, I did find myself missing the world within this book when I'd finished it. I suffered a little withdrawal.

By the way, Lamplighter has been nominated for a Cybil.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Book For Those Who Love Sidekicks

I've been hearing about China Mieville for years. Then his YA novel, Un Lun Dun, was published to raves from reviewers who might not be regular readers of children's fiction. I finally managed to read Un Lun Dun this past month when it was up for discussion at one of my listservs.

This book has a lot going for it, so I'm going to hit what was for me the big negative first, so that I can end on an up note. The negative is that I don't care for books loaded with strange creatures. In a really good interview, Mieville says, "Of all aspects of writing fantastic fiction, the one that never causes me tremendous difficulty is the grotesquerie, the strange figures, the monsters..." He also says he "normally" has to eliminate a few if they serve no plot purpose. He has some marvelous strange figures here, but sometimes the story seems overwhelmed with them. It took a long while for me to start feeling a narrative drive.

That being said, though, Mieville does some clever things in this book about two young girls who discover a secret city, a city that's not London but unLondon. One of them is believed to be the hero a prophesy foretold would come, and they begin an adventure to save Un Lun Dun from something evil that wants to destroy it. Mieville really does know this classic (I'm sure some would say stereotypical) storyline, and he produces some very neat twists relating to sidekicks, prophecies, and quests. As much as I liked that, though, I wondered if younger readers would get it. Maybe you have to be familiar with those types of stories to understand what the author is doing. Or maybe I'm overthinking. It's possible readers can enjoy what's going on without realizing that the author is tweaking a genre.

I thought the danger Un Lun Dun was facing was very interesting, though its human manifestation was obviously a bad guy. All the bad guys were pretty obvious to an adult reader. Given what the danger is, I think this book could very easily have turned into a save-the-environment rant. I don't feel it did, which I very much appreciate. Mieville also has a dry wit I enjoyed.

The early part of this book reminded me a great deal of the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins. In those books a child whose ethnicity is unclear finds a strange world full of unusual creatures (though nowhere
near as many as in Un Lun Dun) and learns that he is the leader a prophecy had predicted would come to save a group there. In nearly every book he has to go on some kind of journey, so he's traveling through strange places as Deeba does in Un Lun Dun.

I think mid-teen, patient, sophisticated readers who were fans of the
Underland Chronicles when they were younger would be very happy to find Un Lun Dun. They'd be reading something that takes liberties with the storyline of a beloved childhood series without destroying it. Readers who enjoy a high-class creature feature will like Un Lun Dun, too.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What's New In SciFi And Fantasy?

Susan Fichtelberg, author of Encountering Enchantment: A Guide to Speculative Fiction for Teens has a page at her website on New and Forthcoming Science Fiction and Fantasy Titles for Teens.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

If You Don't Care For Werewolves, You Can Always Try Zombies

The New York Times Book Review reviewed a couple of YA zombie books this weekend.

And back in May the NYTBR reviewed the third Fog Mound book, Simon's Dream by Susan Schade and Jon Buller. How wonderful! The first Fog Mound was a Cybils nominee.


"Werewolf Soap Opera"

Colleen Mondor's review of Lonely Werewolf Girl is up at the Bookslut column, Things That Bite. I love her description of the book as a "werewolf soap opera." That's a very good thing for those of us who prefer werewolves to soaps.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting Out Of The House

Next weekend I'll be visiting Readercon, a conference on imaginative literature, for one day. I'm going primarily because I can. I like to go to something professional once in a while, but I don't want to have to hop a plane to do it. Even driving an hour to the train station, riding the rails for two hours more or less, and then hailing a cab to reach my final destination seems like an awful lot of work to me. So just the fact that I can get to this place relatively easily was my original motivation.

The Readercon people recently posted the program guides, though, (scroll to bottom of of the page), and I'm much more enthused. I'm not even all that into sci-fi and fantasy, and I still think this stuff sounds great.

Who's going to be at Readercon who the kidlit world might be interested in? Ellen Kushner. She had a Cybils nominee a couple of years ago. Holly Black. Sarah Beth Durst. (I wasn't aware that her work was fantasy or scifi.) Kelly Link. I read her collection of short stories Magic for Beginners, and she has a YA collection coming out this fall. Nancy Werlin. I'm sure there are more. The list of writers attending is rather lengthy. (I am, in fact, reading a kidlit book by a Readercon author, which I hope to be blogging about in a couple of days.)

In honor of my upcoming scifi/fantasy excursion to Readercon at the end of the week, I'll be trying to focus on scifi and fantasy here at Original Content for the next few days.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

And What About Sci-fi For Kids?

I wonder if Clive Thompson isn't lumping science fiction with fantasy in his Wired column Clive Thompson on Why Sci-Fi Is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing. He says, "Teenagers love to ponder such massive, brain-shaking concepts, which is precisely why they devour novels like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books, and Ender's Game. They know that big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge." I'm not going to dispute his basic argument, but "an embossed foil dragon" usually says fantasy to me, not science fiction.

Now, students, after you've read Mr. Thompson's column, think about how his theory that "Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas" applies to children's literature. Is there all that much science fiction being written for children these days? Or is it primarily fantasy? And should those two genres be lumped together?

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Friday, January 11, 2008

A Fantasy For Readers Who Don't Care For Fantasies

Once Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy was brought to my attention by the Cybils folks, I started hearing good things about it from others, too. For good reason.

Skulduggery Pleasant is one of those books in which a young person teams up with an over-the-top in the best possible way adult character. In some of those books, the adult character overwhelms the child. One of the beauties of Skulduggery Pleasant is that the child character is easily able to hold her own with the adult. Or we should say, the sort-of adult. Maybe, former adult.

Young Stephanie Edgley runs into the very odd Skulduggery Pleasant after her uncle and his friend dies suddenly. After Skulduggery saves her from an attack by a mystery man, she learns that he is a walking, talking skeleton. He more than walks and talks. He's magical. Well, okay. I guess that goes without saying since we're talking a skeleton that gets around so well. It's the talking that's the best part about Skullduggery, anyway. He's very witty, very laid back, very smart. He's very all the good things you want to see in a heroic figure. Or all the good things I want to see in one.

Stephanie, of course, ends up drawn into Skulduggery's detective work. Fortunately, both for her and for her readers, she has a gift for it.

Two particularly interesting points about this book:

1. There are masses of fantasy writers out there and they all have to come up with a fantasy world for their fantasies. Personally, I find that kind of trying. It took me a while to work out just what kind of world Skulduggery was part of. But I must say, this particular story had a very good and logical climax.

2. This is a book with characters both girls and boys can identify with. Though the child main character is a girl, Skulduggery, back in his living days, was a man. The fact that he was an adult back then doesn't matter much because now he's a skeleton, a hip, clever male skeleton, which transcends age groups, in my humble opinion. So there's definitely somebody here for everybody.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

And This, My Little Lads, Is How You Handle Stereotype. Or Archetype. Or Whatever Those Types Are.

One night at dinner I described Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett to a couple of family members.

"This girl wants to find her brother who had enlisted in the army so she disguises herself as a guy and enlists, too," I began.

A family member said, "That's been done."

"There's this really tough sergeant," I went on.

"That, too," he said.

"And an officer who doesn't know what he's doing."

"And that."

All of which is true. These are all elements that have been used in fiction before. It's what Pratchett does with them that's so terrific.

Monstrous Regiment is one of Pratchett's Discworld books, but you don't need much knowledge of that series to enjoy the book. (That's the difference between a series and a serial, my little lads.) I didn't totally understand the politics of the war that was being fought, but it didn't matter. What was going on in young Polly's regiment was engrossing enough that I didn't care about the bigger picture. Polly is in a regiment of brand new recruits, among them a troll, a domesticated vampire, and an Igor, which appears to be a zombie of some type. The zombies here are very adept at sewing and medicine, meaning they are a whizz at sewing body parts back on. They're even good at sewing on spare parts.

Are these "monsters" what make the regiment monstrous? Hmmm.

Polly's sergeant, Sergeant Jackrum, assures his recruits over and over that they are his little lads and he will take care of them. It appears that ol' Jackrum has been taking care of little lads for decades. Generations. This guy goes way past your run-of-the-mill screaming and spitting sergeant to become the stuff of myth and legend. At one point while I was reading the book, I wondered if he didn't have some kind of connection to hell. He should have been forced out of the army because of age long, long ago, but he's fought everywhere, knows everyone, and more than a few people owe him.

He is one incredible character, and Pratchett is always revealing something new about him.

Our lieutenant is as inept an officer as you could ever wish to find in a book, but he's saved from becoming a one-dimensional stereotype by his flashes of compassion and technical knowledge. Of course, it's not military knowledge, but you have to give a little respect to a man who knows anything at all and isn't afraid to put on a dress.

Except for the trolls, domesticated vampires, Igors, and the occasional werewolf, Monstrous Regiment reminded me of the historical fiction I enjoyed as a teenager. I read an array of hissyfic (none of it of an improving nature) but what I really liked were books about long ago young women who had adventures. The American Revolution and Civil War were good periods for girl adventures, but nothing beat the Napoleonic Wars for a time period when a young woman could find herself stumbling onto battlefields, fighting off stray soldiers, or doing a little spying.

Monstrous Regiment seemed like a takeoff of the books I was reading years ago, with a far better heroine who has no interest in ending up with a guy, the way so many of the heroines in my old books did. Oh, no. Our Polly can do way better than that.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Are You A Tripods Fan?

Sam Riddleburger is doing a John Christopher Week at his blog.

You know John Christopher, of course. The Tripods Trilogy? Post-apocalyptic books about life on Earth after it has been invaded and overrun by aliens? The museum scene may stick out in your mind, as it does in mine. That and the escape from a tripod city.

And I read the books as an adult.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Where's Your Daddy?

You know those sort of blog attacks that kidlit bloggers sometimes get together and do to try to bring attention to particular books and authors? Maybe they work.

Back in August, Kelly at Big A, little a did a series of "Under the Radar" posts on the Ingo books by Helen Dunmore. I happened to own a copy of the second Ingo book, The Tide Knot, which I'd been putting off reading because I didn't care for the cover, and it looked like an ocean book. I came of age in a land-locked state. I'm not exactly drawn to the sea. But Kelly's posts gave me a nudge, and I read the book a week or two ago.

The Tide Knot is one of the most calming books I can recall reading. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but by calming I don't mean dull and boring. I mean it's an atmospheric book. Otherworldly. And being pulled out of your own frantic life into another world can be calming, even if that other world involves what sounded to me very much like a tsunami.

There's a lot of nature talk in The Tide Knot. You've got your Air/ Land people, and you've got your Water/Ocean people. As often happens with fantasy books that involve nature, there's a bit of mystical mumbo jumbo, which I usually find very trying. People have land power or water power, for instance. And in a few places Dunmore teeters on the brink of giving us eco-lessons. But the writing is so very fine and elegant (and then there is that atmosphere again) that the bits I normally wouldn't have cared for just rolled off my back.

The Tide Knot is the second in a series, but I didn't have any trouble reading it. It's clear that some things have happened before the events in this particular book. Dad has disappeared, for instance. But we're brought up to speed with far less awkwardness than you usually find in serial books. In many ways, some might argue that this is a traditional broken family story, but with some twists. The twists are really good ones, though.

The Tide Knot made me think of Victory by Susan Cooper. The actual story may be familiar, but the writing is so good it doesn't matter.

I'm considering buying Ingo, the first book in the series, and after I've read it giving both books to some family members who own a summer house on the coast in Maine. I think it would be fun to keep the books at the ocean house to read when it rains or to have available for guests.

I don't think it would be all that disturbing to read about a really wicked storm when you're going to have to sleep that night right next to the sea.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

How Much Otherness Do We Really Want?

It's March first, and I just read the January/February issue of The Horn Book. Believe me, I've been much later. I'm probably just in time. They've got what looks like the cover for the March/April issue up at the website, so I should be receiving it any day.

If you still have your January/February issue, check out the article by Deirdre F. Baker called Musings on Diverse Worlds. Baker discusses whether children's fantasy is truly "'other'-oriented" and says, "We can map a history of attitudes toward race and diversity by means of fantasy for children." Contemporary fantasy, she contends, is "tied to a certain kind of celebration of cultural diversity." But not among protagonists.

She has something very interesting to say about how Megan Whalen Turner describes and visualized Eugenides versus his peaches and cream appearance on the cover of The King of Attoila.

And, finally, she points out that a great deal of fantasy draws upon European medieval culture. Which tended to be white, I believe.

I am intrigued.

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