Monday, February 27, 2017

Reviews of books by LeGuin, Pratchett, White, and Brodien-Jones -- two of them wonderful, one okay, and one not so much.

LeGuin, Ursula K. (1970) The Tombs of Atuan. New York:  Aladdin.

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Opening lines:
“Come home, Tenar!  Come home!”
In the deep valley. In the twilight. The apple trees were on the eve of blossoming; here and there among the shadowed boughs, one flower had opened early, rose and white, like a faint star.

Tenar is taken from her home as a little girl to serve in the temple.  There she slowly becomes a servant to the God thought to reside there, and her life becomes dark and twisted.  When the wizard Ged arrives, she helps to trap him in the labyrinthine maze under the temple, but she begins to develop compassion for him as he seems to be starving to death. Before long, however, the reader begins to wonder who is saving whom. 

It is easy to see why this is considered a classic (and why it won a Newbery Honor.)  Le Guin is a master at crafting a world and setting her characters into it so that it feels natural.  The story is gripping without being a frenetic run from one cliffhanger moment to the next (as many modern action adventure novels are.  Instead, it just grabs hold of the reader and will not let do.    

This book would be ideal for advanced middle school readers or high school readers.  Those familiar with fantasy will have the easiest time here.  There is nothing particularly offensive in the book, save mention of the evil god in the beginning.  Since Ged saves Tenar from serving him, I think anyone familiar with the whole story would not have a problem with it. 

Pratchett, Terry (2015) The Shepherd’s Crown.  New York: Harper.

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Opening lines:  “It was one of those days that you put away and remember.  High on the downs, above her parents’ farm, Tiffany Aching felt as though she could see to the end of the world.”
My friend Kris first introduced me to the Tiffany Aching books, and she lent me this one too.  In this one Tiffany must continue serving as the wise woman of two villages (even though she isn’t that old,) stop an invasion of evil elves, and, as usual, manage her unpredictable and overenthusiastic allies, the Wee Free Men – eight inch tall, hard-drinking celtic creatures who look out for her, protect, her, and occasionally get her in big trouble.
The story is great, but the writing is exceptional.  Pratchett manages to explore important themes without ever taking himself or the story too seriously.  At one point, after Tiffany rescues an evil elf princess called Nightshade, who has been thrown out of the faerie realm and is trying to learn about human life, there is this exchange:
“’I have been watching humans,’ said Nightshade…, ‘and I can’t understand them.  I saw a woman giving an old tramp a couple of pennies… Why would she do that? How does it help her?  I don’t understand.’
‘It’s what we do,’ said Tiffany.  ‘The wizards call it empathy.  That means putting yourself in the place of the other persona and seeing the world from their point of view.’” (p 203)  A [age later, Tiffany is trying to talk the elf out of robbing a bank to give money to the old woman.
But look, that disconnected summary doesn’t give you any idea of what reading this book is like.  It is delightful, funny, and gripping all at the same time. 
This book is probably best for 8th grade and up.  There is nothing particularly offensive in it, although Tiffany and others like her sometimes call themselves witches.  Some parents might object to the depiction of witches – though they do not do any evil or sacrifice toads or whatever.  Tiffany mostly just tries to keep the land safe and care for the people on it.
Read it if you have a moment.  This one is a good one.

28 February 2017
White, Ruth (2003) Tadpole.  New York: Dell Yearling.

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Opening Lines:  One day in June, Mama found this ad in the paper: permanent waves one $ Sat morn come early.  And there was an address for a boarding house in Riverbend.”
Carolina Collins always feels inferior to her older sisters.  Kentucky is more popular than Caroline; Virginia is more attractive; and Georgia is smarter.  When their guitar-playing cousin Tadpole shows up at her house one day, looking for a place to lay low from his abusive uncle, he shakes up the town and Carolina begins to see that maybe she has a talent for music, and a way to stand out from her sisters,   Past of the charm of this story is the way that it paints life in their little town as both heartwarming and a really difficult place to scratch out a living. 
This story is perhaps best for fifth grade and older.  It is more likely to become a favorite of the girls, but boys would like the story as well.  It might well make a good read aloud.

There is nothing particularly offensive here, though child abuse is discussed, though not graphically described.  

Christine Brodien-Jones; Kneen, Maggie (2010)  The Owl Keeper.  New York:  Scholastic.

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Opening Lines:  “When Max first saw the girl that night, standing beneath the owl tree, he thought she was a ghost or a vision, or maybe a comic-book character come to life.  It didn’t occur to him that she might be real.”
            Max is being raised in some weird world where an oppressive government is trying to kill off all the owls.  He is being fed poisoned food that seems to sort of interfere with his memory.  He is being watched.
            But since his watchers don’t seem to pay attention to him at night, he often sneaks out and goes to the owl tree where one night he meets this mysterious girl and together (along with an owl) they decide to go on a quest to try to find Max’s Gran and the Owl Keeper who could save them all.
            This world and these characters just don’t hold up real well.  I don’t know what motivates the good guys.  Sometimes I am not even sure what motivates Max.  And the conclusion is inconclusive.  It isn’t that it is a bad book, it is just that there are so many better books out there.  Why waste your time with this one. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

English legend in a fantastic new graphic novel, a classic fantasy novel, and a new weekly comic magazine!

I have always loved the legend of King Arthur.  Books like T.H. White's The Once and Future King and John Stienbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights first caught my imagination with tales of bravery and good versus evil and intrigue and so on.  Recently I stumbled upon some versions of the King Arthur story that I had not read before.

Anderson, M.T.; Offermann, Andrea (2017) Yvain: The Knight of the Lion.  Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Image result for yvain the knight of the lion

Opening Lines:
"I shall speak of love
and of hate
It is truely a marvel, but I tell you
hatred and love may live cramped together,
crouching in the same heart."

I'll confess -- M.T. Anderson fits in a fairly exclusive category of mine.  When I see a book with his name on it, I buy it without hesitation.  Many are familiar with his book Feed or perhaps the two book Octavian Nothing series.  Others may have encountered his delightfully absurd humor/adventure books about Jasper Dash and his friends (including Whales on Stilts, Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware, and others.)  Nonficioin readers may have enjoyed his more recent Symphony for the City of the Dead which describes the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the part he played in breaking the siege of Leningrad during World War Two.  Anderson is a remarkably versatile writer.

But I never could have guessed that he would write this graphic novel.  In Yvain, Anderson takes a nearly eight hundred year old poem by Chretien de Troyes and, working with artist Andrea Offermann, turns it into a remarkable adventure that will grab the imagination of a new generation of readers.  The story concerns Yvain, one of the knights in King Arthur's court, who rides out to avenge his cousin's honor, enters a strange land, and accidentally kills the king of that land.  When he falls in love with the grieving queen, he sets out to prove his honor and win her hand.  What follows has all the magic, heroic battles, intrigue, and excitement that I remember from reading Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Arthur.  

Offermann does a nice job with a style that reminds the reader of tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, but also showcases Yvain's strength and skill in battle, and insecurity and confusion when he realizes he has done wrong.

There is a bit of violence here, but nothing excessively gory.  My guess is that this book is best for fourth graders and up. Although there are some heroic female characters, the book may appeal slightly more to males than females. There is nothing here that would cause any reasonable person to challenge the book.

Did I mention that Yvain rescues a lion from a dragon and the lion becomes his companion?  What could be cooler than a knight in armor going into battle with a lion at his side?

Lawhead, Stephen R. (1989) Arthur.  Westchester, IL:  Crossway.

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Opening Lines:

"Arthur is no fit king.  Uther's bastard, Merlin's pet, he is lowborn and a fool.  He is wanton and petty and cruel.  A glutton and a drunkard, he lacks all civilized graces.  In short, he is a sullen, ignorant brute
     "All these things and more men say of Arthur.  Let them.
     "When all the words are spoken and all the arguments fall exhausted into silence, this single fact remains: we would follow Arthur to the very gates of hell and beyond if he asked it.  And that is the solitary truth."

I cannot remember if I read Lawhead's trilogy when I was younger.  I suspect I did.  I can't remember even the slightest scrap of it, though.  So when my friend Kris loaned it to me, I decided to give it a try.  Lawhead has two earlier books in this trilogy: Taliesin and Merlin.  I skipped to the third book because I wanted to read of Arthur.

And that is what I got.  Here is the story of Arthur from the time he pulls the sword form the stone to his rise to power and eventually his fall.  This version concentrates on the battles and how Arthur's mastery of military strategy allows him to win battles in which he is greatly outnumbered or disavantaged.  Lancelot does not appear in these pages, nor does his infidelity with the queen Guenivere (here she is named Gwenhwyvar).  In fact, Lawhead's version of the queen is much more interesting that the usual version -- in which she is a vision of beauty blessing the various knights who battle over her favor.  Here she is a fierce Irish warrior queen, and nearly a match for Arthur on the battlefield. All the other elements of the legend are present though.  I found myself despairing when Arthur's kingdom began to fall apart, and then delighting in the conclusion in which the once-and-future part of the story is nicely hinted at.

This is some pretty thick reading.  I would recommend it for high school students, though I imagine a determined middle schooler could make it through.  There is some sexuality obliquely described here, plenty of violence,, and some mild cursing (see the opening lines above).  Seasoned readers of fantasy, though, will take it in stride.  This is a good classic to have on hand.

This last one isn't a book at all.  It is a magazine series.

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You see, long ago in the forgotten mists of time, there used to be magazines like Dynamite and Pizzazz (in the US)  that featured short stories and comics and other things that were interesting for grade school kids.  Then those magazines vanished.  And while their spirit survies to some extent in Mad Magazine and American Girl Magazine and the like, these things are not the same.

 Then, as if from a forgotten planet or a dimension beyond human understanding, a British company has begun publishing The Phoenix.  It comes out once a week and features puzzles and some non-ficiton features, but mostly it is a series of serialized comic stories.  Each story develops in each issue, but then ends on a cliff-hanger, so that the reader has to wait it out until the next week's issue arrives.  Features like Lost Tales, Mega Robot Bros, and the Adventures of John Blake will grab elementary school reader's attentions.  I could not tell from the website whether it is possible to subscribe int he US, but the word is that they are working on a deal with Scholastic to distribute it in the US.  Feel free to check it out on thier website and, if you wish, leave them a note encouraging them to make it available throughout the globe.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Three classic children's novels that do not mention our current political troubles in any way.

It is getting harder and harder to escape the anger, insensitivity, vitriol, and horror of our current political situation.  Some people have called reading novels escapism.  But that is an inaccurate term.  Those of us who turn to reading fiction for solace do so not because we want to escape our problems and go to a happy land without conflict or difficulty.  Rather we want to trade the problems we face which we can do little about -- for the vicarious life of a character in a situation often even more dire than our own, who can and does do something that changes his or her world.  That is why we sometimes need to read.  Here are some classics that may help.

Farmer, Nancy (1994) The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm.  New York: Scholastic.

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Opening line:
"Someone was standing by his bed, a person completely unlike anyone Tendai had ever met."

Zimbabwe, 2194.  When his three children are apparently kidnapped, General Matsika seeks the help of three very unusual detectives, the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, all possessed of unusual abilities.  But even as the detectives track the Tendai, Rita, and Kuda, the three children have escaped their captors and are trying to elude pursuers and may be running into more danger than they originally were in.  Somehow, both groups end up becoming involved in a conflict as old as humanity, where good and evil fight it out in the great city and it is up to both the misfit detectives and the children to save the country..

This story was gripping and thought-provoking enough in 1994 to win a Newbery Honor.  It has lost none of its excitement in the twenty plus years since it came out.  In fact, in today's political landscape of turmoil, students may find it refreshing to be in a desperate fictional battle between good and evil, knowing that in the end, good will prevail

This would make a good read-aloud for fourth or fifth grade.  Fifth graders through middle school would enjoy reading it themselves.  There is nothing particularly offensive or likely to be challenged in this book.  I recommend it.

Hill, Kirkpatrick (2002) The Year of Miss Agnes.  New York: Aladdin.

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Opening lines:
"What happens now?" I asked Mama as we watched the plane take the teacher away.
"Maybe no more school,"  Mama twitched her shoulder a little to show she didn't care.

The kids who attend the one-room school house in a tiny Alaskan village have gone through more teachers than they can count.  When Agnes Summerfield shows up one day, they find out what good teaching is like, but they all are wondering whether Miss Agnes will stay.

Look, maybe this will be easier if I just give you a quote form the book.  Here you go:

     "When Miss Agnes read to us, she did all the people in different voices and we forgot right away it was just reading.  It got real, like being inside the book.
      "I didn't want Miss Agnes to ever stop reading.  I felt as if I really was in that deep, dark forest with trees taller than you ever heard of.  And when she stopped, I felt shocked, as if I'd come out of a dream." (p. 39)

See?  It is a nice world to spend some time in and would make a great read-aloud for third through fifth grades.  Nothing objectionable here, except perhaps the vaguely imperialist notion that a white woman from England is teaching native Alaskans.  I prefer to think of it as reenforcing the notion that teachers care for thier students, period.

Read this.  It will make your world happier.

Zindel, Paul  (1968)  The Pigman.  New York:  Bantam. 

Image result for the pigman

Opening Lines:
"Being of sound mind and body on this 15th day of April in our sophomore year at Franklin High School, let it be known that Lorraine Jensena and John Conlan have decided to record the facts and only the facts about our experiences with Mr. Angelo Pignati."

All right, this may not be quite as much of a recommendation as the other two.  But some readers may remember this one from their own high school experience and may enjoy returning to a realistic novel and characters whose challenges seem almost quaint in light of what we deal with in today's world.  I think maybe The Pigman is an acquired taste.  And to be honest, this book has not worn as well as the last one.  Kids today may have trouble figuring out what it means when one character says to another "You're such a card".  Lorraine's fascination with psychology and analysis may also seem very much out of date.  The way Lorraine's mother resigns herself to putting up with sexual harassment a the workplace may be authentic, but is also depressing.  Some students may have trouble relating to the sixties-style experimentation attitude that leads Lorriane and John to throw a party at the Pigman's house when he is in the hospital without so much as thinking about it.  Finally, depending on your reading of the book, it may seem to end without much hope for the future of the characters at all.

Having said that, the book alternates between the voices of John and Lorraine and the very different way in which they see the same events is certainly intriguing.  Likewise, John's bad boy attitude may interest some readers as well.  There were parts in the book where I laughed out loud.  For a certain sort of reader, this book may connect in an authentic way.

This one is probably best for high school.  There are some vague sexual references and certainly a jaded and callous way of viewing the world, but little here that could invite a challenge in this day and age.