Monday, November 18, 2013

Quick Reviews of Other Books I've Been Reading

The Real Downtown Abbey, by Fiona Carnarvon
      Being a fan of the show Downton Abby, I thought I'd give this book a try.  It's written by the current Countess of Carnarvon; she and her husband own and live in Highclere Castle (the estate that is used to film Downton).  The first third of the book was very interesting, telling the story of the fourth Countess, whose history parallels some of the characters and events in the TV show.  The second third of the book bogged down a bit - the bits about the Countess' involvement in nursing World War I solders were interesting, but much of this section retold the general sweep of the war and was only distantly connected to Highclere.  The last third of the book picked back up, recounting how the fourth Earl worked with Howard Carter to open Tutankhamun's tomb.  Worth reading if you're a Downton watcher, but keep your expectations moderate.

A Tale of Sand, by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl.
      I hated this book, not to put too fine a point on it.  It's a graphic novel based on a screenplay that Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl wrote many years before Jim's death, but it was never picked up for production.  It's an absurdist tale of a man dropped into desert landscape and forced to run for his life for no particular reason.  And the twist at the end is dreadfully predictable.  (It could be that I'm judging this harshly because I've never been able to like surreal, absurdist literature; maybe if that's your cup of tea, you'd like A Tale of Sand.  But it wasn't for me.)

Among Others, by Jo Walton
Among Others tells the story of Welsh teenager Morwenna Phelps, whose twin sister was recently killed under mysterious circumstances and who has been packed off to boarding school.  Morwenna is: (1) left with a permanent limp from the same accident that killed her sister, (2) an avid reader of science fiction, and (3) able to see and talk with fairies.  I enjoyed it a lot, not only for Morwenna's story but also for the myriad references to classic works of SF.  Having been a nerdy girl who loved to read and had easy access to a vast collection of fantasy and SF (my dad's), I could easily identify with Mori.  It's an engaging story and Mori's voice rang very true to teenage life (at least, as far I remember).  The only thing I didn't like about this book was Mori's stereotypical relationships with her parents; her mom was a vague fount of evil and her dad was a distant, absent, only partially involved figure.  "My parents don't love/don't understand me" has only been done a few thousand times.  But overall it's a very enjoyable book, especially for those of us who grew up on Asimov, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Zelazny, and Heinlein.  In fact, there's the test I'll suggest for whether you should read this book; if you're familiar with at least four of those names, read it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Girl Who Cirumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catheyne M. Valente

So, Catheryne Valente has this series - five books planned, through published to date - about September, a girl from Nebraska who is transported to Fairyland once a year and has an adventure there.  The titles all start with "The Girl Who..." and conclude with some act performed in Fairyland.  Oh, how I love this series.  I hope that someday it take a place alongside The Chronicles of Narnia as one of English literature's best examples of the "child has adventures in a magical world" theme.  However, I seriously doubt that it will.  Let me tell you why.

The Fairyland the Catheryne Valente has created is a singular place.  Fairies, reindeer, Winds, living machines, stifling bureaucracy, and djinni who live unstuck from the normal movement of time are all found in Valente's made-up world.  And somehow, she makes them all fit.  This Fairyland doesn't have a single unifying theme (except maybe unfettered imagination); it doesn't have a logical set of rules (you kind of make them up yourself as you go along); and sometimes the magic looks a lot like science.  Or maybe the science looks a lot like magic.  Anyway, it's a delightful place, wonderfully realized, unlike any other Fairy realm I've encountered before.

And September, the Girl of the title, is an extraordinary main character.  She is snatched away from her ordinary late-1940's Nebraska home and embarks on her first adventure with hardly a backward glance.  She is bold, and daring, and smart, and thoughtful, and caring.  She has a romantic interest, but their relationship develops with subtlety and care; there's no love-at-first-sight Disneyfication here.  She struggles, and has doubts, and the occasional selfish thought. And that's why I think these books, however wonderfully written they are, won't ever reach the heights of Narnia or Harry Potter; September is just a little too real to fit what most people want from a fairytale.  And similarly, Valente's Fairyland itself isn't a saccharine fantasy of unicorns and rainbows; there is real trouble, real fear, real danger, and real courage in Fairyland and in September and her friends.

I hope, if you have some space in your reading list, and you like a good children's story that also appeals to adults, you'll give Fairyland a try.  My favorite character is the Ell, the literate wyvern who believes his father was a library.  An excellent dragon if you ask me; Ell could hold his head up next to Smaug and Temeraire with pride. 

Hey, speaking of Temeraire...I'll have to put his series on the list for a blog post.  Go look him up if you can't wait!