bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It was a bit of common wisdom among my Harry Potter community many years ago that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was one of the less good ones — better than non-Harry Potter books, of course, but inferior to the other books in the series.

For the life of me, I cannot remember why.

I spent a chunk of last Wednesday devouring the thing from cover to cover and I was at every moment riveted, although every word and em-dash (J.K. Rowling loves em-dashes) was as familiar to me as the sight of my own hands. Though this installment of the series is not yet really dark, it's still got high stakes and a lot of tension, since most of the plot is just trying to figure out who the antagonist even is and then both the memory of Tom Riddle and the basilisk need to actually be defeated. Rowling's touch for mystery writing is really on display, as is her flair for writing secondary characters who are cartoonishly unhelpful but in, I have sadly learned in my wise old age, a realistically frustrating way. Dobby, Gilderoy Lockhart, the painfully earnest Colin Creevey, self-indulgent toilet ghost Moaning Myrtle all of them are irritating as hell in the most amusing possible ways. Other hilarious things include Ron's broken wand, the flying Ford Anglia (which later goes feral), Fred and George (of course), the Headless Hunt's general douchiness, the drugging of Crabbe and Goyle, and the cranky singing Valentines.

As usual in the Harry Potter books (as in life), friendship and kindness are of paramount important; many rules are meant to be broken but it's still useful to do your homework (or at least to have someone in the group have done their homework); and racism is bad. And, of course, we are taught that "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (We are also taught not to trust anything that can think for itself if we can't see where it keeps its brain, which is increasingly difficult out here in technologically advanced Muggle-land.)

Though this is a short book, it does a lot to build up the backstory to the larger Voldemort story that will be the main conflict in the rest of the series. We learn about Parseltongue, and why Hagrid was expelled, and that Dumbledore used to be younger and has not been an old man and head of Hogwarts since time immemorial, even though it seems like he should be. (In this part of the series, Dumbledore is still the greatest. If he were any greater, we wouldn't need Harry.) We also get to meet MORE WEASLEYS which is great because the Weasleys are the best. We also get more Malfoys, who are basically foils for the Weasleys, in that they are the worst.

Anyway, it was a beautiful three hours or so, rereading this book, rivaled only by the rest of the day when I reread Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (review forthcoming).
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
2016 having been an epically exhausting year on a number of fronts—including the reading one, where I skimped on fiction and instead subjected myself to many math-heavy poker books—I decided to end it with a nice reread of the Harry Potter series during my week off. I got started pretty much the second the Christmas festivities were over, spending most of the 26th curled up either on the couch or in the tub with my first American edition of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

While I remember the basic storyline and many of the most pop-cultural moments very, very well indeed, what with having read this book at least a hundred times before (I was an early adopter), I still found myself surprised at just how familiar some of it was: I could remember the exact flow of entire sentences and paragraphs as I'd read them previously, years and years ago; I could remember pronunciations I'd gotten wrong in my head back when I read it last. I don't think I've read these books since the seventh volume came out about five years ago.

Somehow, probably because the books eventually get so serious and because they had such a profound effect on myself and on our culture, the one thing I had managed to sort of forget was just how freaking funny they are. Things aren't super heavy in this book yet, although we are introduced to the basics of Voldemort's story, and the finale is pretty damn creepy. Mostly things here are still a little bit cartoonish, with a similar vibe to other snarky British children's fantasy like Roald Dahl, featuring amusingly gross wizarding world hazards like troll boogers. The images in my head of this one are still heavily shaped by Mary Grand-Pre's drawings and a lifetime of watching Muppets more than they are the actual Harry Potter movies (Hagrid is the Ghost of Christmas Present, pass it on), since the movies didn't start getting made until nearly half the series was published.

The book itself is still a delight to hold and to read, with nice creamy parchment-y paper and that jauntified Copperplate lettering at the top of every page. I admit I did a lot of uncontrollable nostalgic giggling and a good deal of reading sentences aloud to myself just to delight in them. Rereading this one was a beautiful and pure experience that put me back in touch with my inner child and was overall GOOD FOR MY SOUL, a well-deserved and much needed joy, from "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much" to the typographic note at the end.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In the latest edition of Failing At Book Clubs, one of the books clubs I'm in read the entirety of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series, which all in all is probably about the length of one regular adult novel. Despite being given plenty of lead time, I managed to only read the first book, The Book of Three, and then missed the actual book club because I was sick.

I remember the Chronicles of Prydain very fondly from my childhood but I think I hadn't quite realized how long ago in my childhood I read them since I was very surprised at how quickly things moved along when I started reading. I guess I haven't actually read them since my reading level surpassed a 5th grader's, nor have I read much in the way of other books at quite that level. Middle grade is about as young as I go these days, except for the Victorian classics.

Anyway, the book was still cute and adventuresome for all that, and had that early-medieval British Isles thing going on that I like so much. I'd forgotten that it takes place in basically Wales, not England. I really need to learn more about Wales; it seems an interesting place with a lot of wacky history.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh is the fourth and, currently, last volume in R.L. LaFevers’ series about Theodosia Throckmorton, the eleven-year-old daughter of two British Egyptologists, who is able to sense magic and remove curses from ancient artifacts. In this installment, Theodosia travels to Egypt with her mother—an archaeologist who is nevertheless completely unaware of all things magical—to return a sacred artifact to the ancient order of the Eyes of Horus. As usual, she is pursued by the evil Serpents of Chaos, who are the actually dangerous order of occultists that tend to pursue her (the other one, the goofy Black Sun, were disposed of in the last book). Guarded, in part, by her contacts with the Brotherhood—another secret order, this one dedicated to guarding the lost knowledge of the library of Alexandria—Theodosia has to manage her time carefully in order to return the emerald tablet without her mother finding out, which unfortunately means a lot of playing too sick to go to the digs.

As much as I liked this book, putting Theodosia and all her special Egypt powers back into the milieu of Egypt occasionally got a little awkward as the book danced along trying to keep Theodosia sufficiently protagonist-y without splatting too hard into a white savior storyline. The results are mixed, what with Theodosia's role in the various plots and orders being very very special, but also a lot of pretty well-developed secondary Egyptian characters and a sympathetic look at the Egyptian nationalist movement.

While there is a lot of Gadji, I still think there is not enough Gadji in this book. I'd read a book entirely about Gadji.

I think this book is emotionally strongest (and least squidgy) when dealing with Theodosia's feelings of alienation towards her family and her secrecy-strained relationship with her mother, especially when more of her family history is uncovered.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Miss Theodosia Throckmorton is the sort of MG heroine I would have been completely obsessed with had R. L. LaFevers' delightful series been around when I was about ten or eleven. As it is, I'm unashamed to eat this series up with a spoon. I'd read the first two a couple years ago when I temporarily stole them from Asshole Ex's younger sister, and more recently, a friend of mine who works for HMH--after also getting me hooked on LaFevers' His Fair Assassin trilogy--procured me copies of books 3 and 4.
I read Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus all in one day, which was yesterday, when I was suffering a stomach bug that required a billion hours of napping to get over, otherwise it wouldn't have taken the entire day. Despite my having forgotten quite a lot of what happened in the first two books, it was still a fun read, and most of it got explained again enough that I wasn't lost for long.
The basic concept of this series is that Theodosia Throckmorton, the daughter of two Egyptologists who work at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London, can sense magic--specifically, curses of the sort that hang around on the ancient artifacts that tend to wind up in antiquities museums. She's also a fair hand at removing them, although occasionally something gets out of hand and we get a book.
In this third installment, Theodosia and her little brother Henry discover an emerald tablet, and it appears that everyone is after it. "Everyone," in this case, includes the Serpents of Chaos, a thoroughly evil secret society; the Black Suns, a mostly just completely batty but also somewhat evil secret society; and Awi Bubu, an Egyptian mesmerist who may be more than he seems. The only people who aren't after the emerald tablet, in fact, is the Chosen Keepers, which is unfortunate for Theodosia as she supposedly works for/with them and they keep blowing her off.
As one would expect, basically all the grownups in the series are oblivious numbskulls, even the nice ones, such as Theodosia's kindly but very career-focused parents. All the same, they are entertaining secondary characters, and some of them are even sympathetic, such as the socially inept Stilton. The younger kids are much more fun, though, especially Theodosia's street urchin friend Sticky Will and all his weirdly-named brothers.
This series strikes an odd middle ground of not overly romanticizing the Victorian era but not really dealing with any of its social issues in much depth either--it's just sort of dropped in there that, for example, Sticky Will's mother is still alive but is barely making ends meet as a laundress and will have to keep laundressing until she drops dead of exhaustion. Upon reflection, I think this is probably appropriate for middle grade, so that the book remains a fun adventure and doesn't turn into an issues book, but the children who read it still shouldn't grow up to be intolerably stupid adults who think the Victorian era was all manners and spiffy hats.
On to book four, while I wait for the second His Fair Assassin book to clear at the library.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In a desperate bid to complete my Goodreads challenge this year (Why oh why did I extend it by 25 books?), I have been looking at the shortest, fastest-looking reads on my TBR shelf, and that means middle-grade. Luckily, because I have excellent taste in middle-grade fiction, this meant I finally got around to reading Niel Gaiman’s Coraline.

I’ve seen the movie, which was pretty awesome—directed by Henry Selick, who is the only stop-motion animation director worth having direct your stop-motion movie—so I mostly knew what the storyline would be, although it’s been a couple of years.

Since this is a Niel Gaiman book, and particularly one of his children’s books, it’s both cute and creepy. Coraline moves into a new flat with her parents, and is bored, feeling that her parents aren’t paying enough attention to her because they’re doing boring grown-up things, like working.
Coraline fancies herself an explorer, so she explores the flat and her upstairs neighbor and her downstairs neighbors and eventually explores her way through a door that opens into brick wall most of the time, and find herself, Alice-style, in a mirror version of her flat populated with alternate versions of her parents and neighbors. Her “other mother” seems quite nice at first, paying her lavish attention, but Coraline realizes something is up when she returns to her real flat and her parents are missing. Coraline and the other mother begin a terrifying game wherein Coraline has to get herself, her parents, and the ghosts of other trapped children out of the alternate universe and into the real world—or she’ll be stuck as the other mother’s pet forever, or at least until the other mother uses up her soul.

This story was simple, whimsical, and creepy all at the same time, with Coraline’s spare, childlike voice directing a close third person narrative that ends up feeling more than a little surrealist. It definitely makes me want to rewatch the movie, since there’s a lot of morbidly whimsical visuals in the book and I can’t remember how they were done. Overall it’s an excellent modern fairy tale, and I think I would have particularly loved it had it been around when I was eight or so.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Finishing out the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Mark Oshiro, and therefore I, just got through the fourth volume in the series, Talking to Dragons.

Talking to Dragons is the one I read the least frequently when I was younger, and as a result, it is the one I had forgotten the most about. I remembered that it took place several years after the end of Calling on Dragons, and that the main character was Daystar, and something about a fire-witch, and obviously that it wrapped  up the whole Wizards Have Imprisoned King Mendanbar plot. I also mostly remembered not liking it as much as the others, probably due to the relative lack of Cimorene.

While there was indeed a sad lack of Cimorene, I found I actually did like the book quite a bit this  time around! I cannot help but wonder if some of my change in opinion comes from knowing that this book was actually written before the other three, rather than before. The style is definitely a bit less developed than the other books, particularly the humor—it’s cute and silly and funny but I still feel like it’s a bit less polished than the rest of the series. I’m also really, really super impressed that the references to/summaries of the previous books match up exactly and quite specifically; I guess even if she wrote this book first she had the whole series outlined or something? I mean, I was basically listening with an ear towards seeing if she fucked up, and she didn’t, and I think that’s very impressive because honestly, there’s continuity errors between the first and second Discworld books and they’re just one story.

The basic plot of this book is that Daystar, son of Cimorene and Mendanbar, has no idea who he is, and is therefore very surprised when one day, following a visit by the wizard Antorell, his mother gives him a magic sword and kicks him out of the house in the general direction of the Enchanted Forest. Daystar survives the Enchanted Forest largely by being very polite to everyone and everything. He means a dreadfully impolite but sasstastic fire-witch named Shiara, a small excitable lizard named Suze, Morwen (yay), Telemain (also yay), a silly princess and her doofy knight, and a small, nameless, genderless, slightly whiny adolescent dragon, not necessarily in that order. At one point, Daystar, Shiara, and the dragon are in the Caves of Chance and they all meet an ineptly demanding pile of animated blackberry jelly, which is something I had clean forgotten about right up until they met it and then it all came flooding back to me that I had once thought this thing to be the cutest little monster ever.

`Overall I think it makes a solid conclusion to the series in most ways, but it will probably forever remain the odd one out for me.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I have been meaning to read Holly Black’s Doll Bones for quite a while, as I have adored all of her YA stuff but have never read any of her middle grade stuff, and Doll Bones sounded like the best place to start because the title sounded creepy as hell. Creepy middle-grade is the best middle-grade! It’s so cute and rarely manages to actually creep me out because I’m all grown up now (mostly).

Doll Bones is told from the protagonist  of a middle-school boy named Zach, who plays an awesome sort of pirate adventure fantasy game with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, using various dolls/action figures. In their game, an antique doll that Polly’s mom keeps locked in a cabinet serves as the Queen.

Stuff gets weird when Zach’s dad, an occasional proponent of the “teach kids that life is hard by deliberately making their lives hard” school of childrearing, declares that Zach is too old for this make-believe stuff and throws all of Zach’s action figures away. Zach, too embarrassed and upset to admit that this happened, tells Poppy and Alice that he doesn’t want to play the game anymore. So when Poppy starts telling him that the Queen is talking to her, Zach thinks he’s just trying to lure him back into the game. When Poppy and Alice actually show up at his house in the middle of the night telling him they have to go to somewhere in Ohio to bury the Queen doll because the bone china of the doll is actually made from the bones of a murdered girl, Zach decides to go with them, if only to shut Poppy up. But as the quest continues and weird things start to happen, Zach becomes increasingly convinced that the Queen really is a restless spirit.

Mostly, though, Zach and Poppy and Alice fight, and keep secrets from each other, and generally put all their friendships through the wringer, as they all try to work through what’s a game and what isn’t, and what’s really important to all of them. This is definitely one of those stories that’s largely about stories, which is totally fine by me. It’s also very much about friendship and the importance of being honest with your friends, which I am generally inclined to find heartwarming and adorable.

The thing here that I am MOST impressed about is the doll’s backstory. HOO-EE. That is some hardcore shit and no mistake. It’s gruesome and heartbreaking and sort of morbidly beautiful because ~art~ and it’s got some real Victorian and Romantic novel tropes woven in there very effectively, and certainly much more subtly than any Victorian novel actually used them (I guess you can’t ever really do “grief-stricken mad genius artist” that subtly, but… I’ve seen worse). The doll itself is giantly creepy and gruesome and just gets more so every time you learn something else about how it was made; and the Queen’s… characterization? Ghost powers? They kinda run together—are pretty unsettling.

The thing I felt the least impressed with might have been the very end? This may just be me getting unused to standalones or shorter books, but I remember being surprised that I had reached the end, not because it was a dreadful cliffhanger or anything, which I’m getting rather used to, but because everything had seemed to wrap up neatly, so I was waiting for one more twist or something weird to pop up and be not actually settled or something like that… I think I’ve gotten used to “Oh look we’ve finished our quest, we can go home now” as being the fake-out to a story ending instead of, like, how books actually end. Even though that’s kind of the standard way for stories to end and has been for much of the history of Western storytelling and I should know this because I have a goddamn degree in this sort of thing.

Overall I found this to be a good, cutely Gothic kind of read and I’m sure I would have gotten all obsessed with it and had a whole Phase if I’d found it when  I was in late-elementary or middle school. Also I’m glad the only doll I have in my room is a nice goofy mass-produced Monster High doll (don’t judge meeee we didn’t have Monster High when I was the right age for it) or I might have been creeped out for reals and not slept for a week.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Calling on Dragons was possibly my favorite one of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles books when I was younger. It’s a little bit darker and a little bit weirder than the other ones, but this is offset by a heightened number of sassy talking animals.

Calling on Dragons is told from the perspective of the witch Morwen, who has been previously established as totally awesome in the first two volumes. While it’s great to hear a story from Morwen’s perspective just because Morwen is awesome, the real treat here is that Morwen is the only human who can understand her cats when they talk. Morwen owns nine cats—none of whom are black—and they are fantastically catlike, filling the whole range of cat personalities from lazy to snobbish to hungry. (Fiddlesticks in particular reminds me of our own lovely dumb cat Khaleesi.)

Morwen is dealing with her usual witchy business—namely, planning a garden show and trying to avoid the whinings of a cranky traditionalist named Arona Michelear Grinogian Vamist who thinks she’s not stereotypical enough—when her cats find a six-foot-tall white rabbit named Killer. Killer is not actually supposed to be six feet tall; he has accidentally gotten enchanted. In investigating Killer’s size issues, Morwen also finds evidence of wizards, who are supposed to be banned from the Enchanted Forest. With the help of the nerdtastic mage Telemain, one of the architects of the spell that is supposed to stop wizards from causing trouble, Morwen reports to King Mendanbar and Queen Cimorene of the Enchanted Forest, where they discover two very important things: one, Queen Cimorene is pregnant, and two, Mendanbar’s magical sword is missing.

You might think Mendanbar would be the most obvious member of the royal household to go a-questing for his sword, since it’s his sword and he’s not pregnant, but this is impossible due to nerdy magic reasons. (Mendanbar is predictably unhappy about this.) So Morwen, Telemain, Cimorene, Killer (who is now a floating blue donkey), Kazul the King of the Dragons, and two of Morwen’s cats go a-questing to get the sword back from the Society of Wizards instead. Killer picks up a few more unfortunate enchantments, we run into a lot of characters that make amusing meta references to other fairy tales (including one Farmer MacDonald), that annoying Vamist dude turns up again, and eventually, after many wacky hijinks and parody/metahumor/deconstruction of fairy tale conventions, the sword is retrieved. Unfortunately, they do not live happily ever after; they are instead mercilessly CLIFFHANGERED and then you have to go read the fourth book.

Rereading this book again as an adult (and being helped along by the perspective of someone who has no idea what’s going on… this person, as usual, being Mark Oshiro, my #1 source of cheating on my annual book challenge and of not passing out from boredom at work), I got to re-appreciate how clever a lot of the jokes are (you know how jokes start to seem more obvious than they are when you’re familiar with them), but also how some of the stuff dealt with in this book is a bit more… heavy? Real-world-y? There are a lot of ways in which this book is a little bit less about fairy tales and more about, like, regular bad people. The first two books were full of the heroes temporarily melting wizards; in this one, Kazul finally loses her patience giving them chances to regroup and starts actually eating them. Up until this point the series had really shied away from characters the reader has met actually dying. Arona Vamist is very much a garden-variety bully, conformist, and authoritarian; he’s not a magical creature in any way, just a busybody using fear, lies, and social pressure to screw innocent people over in the name of abstract ideas like “tradition.” And, of course, there’ s the ending, in which it turns out that it will take years to undo the mess the wizards left them in, rather than everything getting wrapped up in a nice shiny bow at the end of a few weeks. There’s also a strong message of “don’t eat random shit that you don’t know what it is, particularly when people tell you not to eat it.”

On the other hand, there’s also cranky magic mirrors and an always-hungry floating blue donkey who keeps getting insulted by sassy cats, so it’s not like the book is overall much of a downer.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Following up Dealing with Dragons, Mark has read the second book of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, this one titled Searching for Dragons. And so I have reread it as well because I could read this series all day every day.

Searching for Dragons has a different protagonist than the first book, although Cimorene is still in it, being sensible and awesome. Apparently it is considered a risky move to have the protagonists differ in the books of a series? I don’t get it; I have read a lot of good series with each book being from a different person’s POV. POV changes are awesome.

Anyway, our new protagonist is Mendanbar, the young King of the Enchanted Forest, a slightly awkward dude with little patience for much of the formality of kinging. Mendanbar is smart and effective but has a somewhat fuzzy grasp of the magic he uses, which is tied directly to his role as King of the Enchanted Forest—as King, he is the only person with the sort of access to the Enchanted Forests’ magic that he has, and the ability to manipulate it directly. It’s a really cool magic system, too—basically, the forest is full of threads of power, and Mendanbar can see and manipulate the threads. Mendanbar’s main failing as king seems to be his inability or unwillingness to delegate, meaning he does basically everything himself and has no time to get his hair cut. He has rather excellent advice-giving skills but seems to only be able to use the on other people. He is generally just super adorkable and I am pretty sure he was my first literary crush, and he is PERFECT for Cimorene and all other love stories are boring.

The plot in this one is a very odd sort of quest. Mendanbar finds a huge patch of his forest reduced to dusty wasteland and stripped of its magic, and goes to try and find someone who can tell him about it. This leads him to Morwen, who sends him to Kazul, except he meets Cimorene instead, who tells him that Kazul is missing and she was about to go looking for her. Mendanbar decides to accompany Cimorene, since he has to talk to Kazul, and his other option is going home to try and deal with wizards, who are being sneaky and possibly troublesome and who Mendanbar suspects are attempting to deliberately start a war between the Enchanted Forest and the dragons. Wizards are terrible. Magicians, on the other hand, are big nerds, and we meet one in the form of Telemain, a magician prone to going on long intellectual jargon-laden monologues about magical things. I remember thinking that Telemain’s lines were funny and unintelligible when I was wee, but now, after several years of reading billions of pages of academic-speak in a variety of disciplines, I understand basically everything he’s saying (even though he’s talking about magic and magic isn’t real!) and it kind of makes the rest of the cast—who are all ostensibly adults, even if young ones—seem a little dense. But that is really the only part of the book that has not grown up well. Other interesting personages they meet include a giant who has a cold and is getting a bit too old for marauding, a dwarf who can spin straw into gold and keeps getting stuck with people’s firstborn children, and a flying carpet repairman. It’s all metahumor all the way, mashed-up fairy-tale edition. (I believe this series was highly formative in turning me into the type of person who hosts a costume party for the season premiere of Once Upon a Time, which I did yesterday because I am a big dork.) (I went as Evil Queen Regina because she brings new meaning to the phrase “gothy fabulous”.)

Watching Mark read this was just as fun as the first book, whether he was tsk-ing at Mendanbar for being a princess bigot (he kind of is, although I kind of sympathize, because nothing makes a group of people seem more annoying than when they continually want something out of you that you don’t want to give… I feel like Mendanbar hates princesses kind of the way everyone else hates Jehovah’s Witnesses) or calling the wizards all sorts of nasty names, like comparing them to bronies. Sadly, there was no “Ford of Whispering Snapes” in this book, although his enthusiastic shipping of Cimorene and Mendanbar makes up for it.

Morwen’s cats are also amazing. They are much smarter than my cat. I can’t wait to see more of them in the third book—I vaguely remember them as being hilarious and awesome but other than that it’s been so long since I’ve read it that I don’t remember what was awesome about them!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Today in the wonderful world of “Mark Reads My Entire Childhood,” somebody commissioned Mark to read the first chapter of Patricia C. Wrede’s classic work of fairy tale deconstruction and metahumor, Dealing with Dragons. This first chapter is entitled In Which Cimorene Refuses to be Proper and has a Conversation with a Frog. I have eerily distinct memories of the first time I ever heard this, on audiobook in Pam’s car when we were in second grade. It turned out to be one of those Changed My Life moments because I have literally never stopped being wildly in love with this book.

It turns out that I am not the only person following Mark as he reads Tamora Pierce’s all-the-things and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted that turned out to be a big The Enchanted Forest Chronicles fan, and next thing I knew, the entire book was commissioned. Mark Reads community, you are truly magical.

So, Dealing with Dragons, the first book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles quartet, follows the adventures of Princess Cimorene, youngest princess of Linderwall, as she runs away to volunteer to be princess for a dragon in order to escape an arranged marriage to a golden-haired twit named Prince Therandil. Princess Cimorene is one of my favorite protagonists of all time, a rebellious, “improper” princess who doesn’t fall into that sort of “I’m so feisty and sassy, I do what I want!” kind of ham-handed rebelliousness that people who don’t understand feminism or characterization always seem to write when they’re assigned to write Strong Female Characters. Dealing with Dragons has strong elements of a comedy of manners (I’ve heard it called a fantasy of manners) and Cimorene’s characterization more resembles a Jane Austen heroine or my forever homegirl Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm. Cimorene has a strong practical streak and tries to keep things sensible and tidy; she’s domestically competent and the thing she hates about princessing is how little useful work it involves, not that it’s coded feminine—for Cimorene, cooking, cleaning, organizing, and other domestic and administrative work is just as much an escape from the uselessness of princessing as fencing, Latin, and magic lessons.

Cimorene is hired by a dry-witted, thoroughly awesome lady dragon named Kazul, and has a grand old time getting the caves in order, sorting treasure, organizing the dragon’s library, and all sorts of cool stuff. Obstacles soon crop up, though—first in the form of a bunch of irritating knights who try to rescue her, then her even more irritating fiancé Therandil who tries to rescue her and will not be dissuaded, then some creepy, condescending wizards who keep sneaking around and seem to be up to something. Also, Cimorene and her fellow princess Alianora are trying to perform a fire-proofing spell, and they can’t seem to find powdered hen’s teeth anywhere.

With the help of Morwen, a no-nonsense witch who lives in the Enchanted Forest, and the Stone Prince, a not-entirely-twitty adventurer burdened with expectations of greatness due to a prophecy (and additionally burdened with having turned into stone), Cimorene and Alianora discover, and manage to foil, a dastardly plot by the wizards and one particularly nasty dragon to seize the role of King of the Dragons. I’m obviously not going to tell you how, but it’s one of those satisfying endings that neatly incorporates elements from a gamut of amusing little subplots and episodes that happened earlier in the book, so everything fits together quite neatly and tidily, which is what you want in a fairy tale.

After nearly twenty years you’d have thought I’d be able to come up with coherent words for talking about how awesome I think this book is, but mostly I just squee and flail a lot. (Morwen would think me very silly.) It takes a good sharp look at a lot of the more silly, sexist, and harmful fairy tale tropes, but it does it with charm and humor and in a simple way that’s easy for small children to grasp. It has all the feel of a delightful fluffy merengue of a Disney movie but there’s some real Valuable Life Lessons, like what fairy tales were invented to teach, buried in there.

Mark is now on to Searching for Dragons, the sequel, so expect a review flailing about how awesome King Mendanbar is sometime in the next few weeks.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In the latest in Mark Does Stuff readalongs, Mark has apparently decided to read my entire childhood all at the same time, so, while going through all of Tamora Pierce’s stuff on his regular schedule and, now, starting the Enchanted Forest Chronicles on YouTube, he did Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted as a Double Feature.

Ella Enchanted is a loose retelling of Cinderella, in which Ella of Frell was given a “gift” at birth by a well-intentioned but incredibly blockheaded fairy named Lucinda. The “gift” is obedience—meaning that Ella is literally, physically incapable of not obeying orders. If, unlike Lucinda, you take a half a second to think about this, the implications are completely terrible—people can force Ella to do all sorts of unpleasant and even dangerous things and have pretty much endless capacity to take advantage of her.

Rereading this book—and particularly being able to follow along with Mark’s perspective, who, as usual, had never heard of this book before and was going into it completely unspoiled—the main thing that struck me was how freakin’ dark this book is. Not only does Ella’s mother die in the beginning, in tragic fairy tale fashion, but Ella’s father is creepy, Olive is teeth-achingly, relentlessly grasping and weird, Hattie is basically Chris Christie in a wig, Dame Olga is syrupy and insincere, and talking to Lucinda is like getting into an Internet argument with libertarians. The five of them don’t have an ounce of self-awareness between them, which gives me headaches. The implications of Ella’s curse are explored pretty thoroughly (with the notable exception of sexual violence, because this is a children’s book), resulting in Ella having to give up her most treasured possessions and her money up to the last penny, having to cut off her only friend at finishing school, becoming a scullery maid, being prevented from talking to Prince Char, not being able to tell anybody what’s happening to her or why, and almost getting eaten by ogres. While Ella is clever and resourceful enough to escape from some of these scrapes—she doesn’t actually get eaten by the ogres, after all—it’s made quite clear that the curse is relentlessly and debilitatingly capable of fucking up her life, no matter how personally awesome she is. And Ella’s pretty personally awesome—she’s proactive, rebellious, clever, good with languages, fun-loving, and fairly compassionate, although not for people who are acting abusively (which I am okay with; I think understanding is great and all but sometimes it’s acceptable to not focus on what wounded bunnies the poor poor bullies are. I am also sometimes more okay than a lot of other progressives I know with hitting back where it hurts over hitting where the problems is, which is a fancy way of saying that I have zero qualms about Ella stealing Hattie’s wig even though there is nothing wrong with wearing a wig).

The first three-quarters of the book have very little to do with the original Cinderella tale, and follow Ella as she recovers from her mother’s death, tries to deal with her weird mercenary father, gets sent off to finishing school with Hattie and Olive, escapes from finishing school in order to intercept Lucinda at a giant’s wedding and ask her to take her “gift” back, hunts ogres with Prince Char and his knights, and slides down stair rails at the royal palace. It’s only after Ella’s father, financially ruined through his own con artistry, marries Dame Olga and immediately faffs off on a trading mission that Ella is ordered to serve as a scullery maid, against her father’s express wishes, and prevented from seeing Prince Char. Prince Char is a thoroughly delightful love interest and a perfect complement for Ella, he takes his responsibilities as a future leader extremely seriously, and Ella brings out his latent sense of humor. The letters they write each other while he is in Ayortha and Ella is suffering as a scullery maid under Dame Olga will basically spoil you for romance with real humans forever (heartfelt text messages just ain’t the same). Char has his own characterization and backstory and doesn’t so much save Ella as serve as a sort of catalyst for Ella being able to save herself (and the prince and the kingdom, while she’s at it).

I had forgotten that the curse-breaking scene is actually kind of weird; I tend to visualize books in my head like movies, and the final battle (that’s basically what it is) is all in Ella’s head, so I spent a lot of it imagining how strange it must look to everyone else around that Ella’s just, like, having a fit, is what it sounds like. Also I kind of wanted more on-page smackdown of Hattie once the curse was broken, because Hattie is terrible.

I had forgotten that LUCINDA LEARNS TO GIVE GOOD GIFTS AT THE END. LARGELY MEANING THAT THEY ARE PHYSICAL OBJECTS THAT ONE CAN DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO USE. So that was a pleasant surprise.

The major theme in the story is the importance of free will and consent, which I think makes it a super valuable book for young persons, but it’s also a good solid fantasy tale of a girl trying to break a dangerous curse and being awesome. I guess I would definitely recommend it for children, but would only recommend it for adults with a warning that it’s very upsetting. There are some ways in which I think children are able to “handle” much heavier stuff in their books than adults, and this book engages a lot of those, apparently? Idunno, all of us who had read it as kids were like “Yeah this is a great fairy tale book, I loved it to bits” and all those who were just coming to it as adults were like “THIS IS MASSIVELY UPSETTING HOW DID YOU SURVIVE CHILDHOOD” so make of that what you will.
bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
I'm still too scarred from Les Mis to read any grown-up books, so instead I read a children's book that seemed vaguely like The Sort of Thing I Like: Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland, it turns out, is a lot of the sorts of things I like, and it is things I like to such a degree that it was occasionally a bit much, but overall I had a very good time reading it. It's written in a very deliberately cute and faux-Victorian style, mimicking the tone of classic children's lit books like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, which is a little bit odd since it takes place in the World War II era and was written, y'know... two years ago. But I like a little bit of faux-Victorian whimsy and so I decided to just roll with it, which I think was a good choice, because it really is a charming story.

The book is about a twelve-year-old girl named September, who lives in Omaha with her mother, a mechanic, while her father is in the Army. One day the Green Wind comes and takes September off to Fairyland to have adventures. After going through a lot of whimsical bureaucracy, September finds herself on a quest to recover a witch's magical Spoon, which had been stolen by the evil Marquess who rules Fairyland. The Marquess is a little girl who has been introducing all sorts of real-world no-fun things like laws and taxes and bureaucracy and order to Fairyland, after having killed the beloved old Queen, Good Queen Mallow. September picks up a few traveling companions, including a Wyverary (half Wyvern, half Library) named A-through-L and a Marid (a sort of mermaidy creature with an odd relationship with Time, who can grant wishes when bested in a battle) named Saturday. After obtaining the Spoon from the Marquess, the Marquess badgers September into going on another Quest, this time for Good Queen Mallow's magic sword, which is not always in the shape of a sword, but is a powerful weapon nonetheless. We're pretty sure something nefarious is going on here and that this particular Quest is not a good idea, and September's adventures get a bit grittier as she both tries to complete the quest and tries to figure out what precisely she's doing and why precisely it's a bad idea for her to be doing it and, of course, how to get out of it without the Marquess cutting off her head.

While the style of the book is almost painfully small-children-y and old-fashioned, the story itself deals with some more modern and more advanced themes than Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland do. September is a pretty awesome heroine, and her adventures make her wrestle with all sorts of ideas about home and family and government and friendship and belonging, and the twist at the end brings up some serious questions about goodness and evil and blame--the Marquess' backstory, there are some serious twists there, and it is basically THE MOST sympathetic villain backstory--and also many of the most important characters are ladies, which I like. (There are some pretty awesome secondary characters who are ladies too, like the Faerie woman who wrangles wild velocipedes for a living.) (They say "velocipede" instead of "bicycle" because it's cute and fancy that way.) In the second half of the book, her adventures get a little darker and grittier than in Victorian novels--she really does have to build a ship herself and circumnavigate Fairyland in it, and it ain't pretty.

Apparently some people have compared this book to The Phantom Tollbooth, which I think is probably a pretty apt in a "If you like X, you may like Y" kind of way.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So, unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard that Peter Jackson has made a movie adaptation of the first third or so of The Hobbit, which I did see, and I do have Thoughts about it, but that's not what I'm writing here today. This here blog is primarily about books, and since I am a big ole nerd, I decided it was imperative that I reread The Hobbit so that I could nitpick with maximum accuracy, and I did so.

My main two impressions are as follows:
1: I still adore The Hobbit and think it is awesome.
2: This is so obviously not the kind of story Tolkien is comfortable writing, like, at all.

Tolkien is very lucky that Britishness in general reads as being totally adorable all the time, because the writing in The Hobbit is wicked stilted. Tolkien's attempts at being funny are always a little stiff, and frequently a bit obscure (does anyone know what "attercop" means and why it is insulting? Did you know WHEN YOU WERE EIGHT?). Thirteen dwarves is way the hell too many, and there isn't enough time to even begin characterizing half of them, so at the end the only ones I feel I have any idea who the hell they might be are Thorin, Fili, Kili, Bombur, Balin, and Dwalin, and even then Fili and Kili are basically a single unit. The elves in The Hobbit are way goofier than the ones in The Lord of the Rings, even when they are the same elves. I had forgotten that the trolls had silly alliterative common names--they are like Bert and Bill and Bob, or something--and that nearly every time our intrepid heroes are in mortal danger, SOMEBODY starts singing. The structure of the plot is actually fairly weak, which I never noticed before--the quest is full of random dangerous detours and getting-attacked-by-thingies and about 80% of them are resolved Gandalf ex machina. Thorin is frequently described as "basically decent" and as being on the side of Good rather than of Evil, but his actual shown-not-told characterization could charitably be described as "a complete dickbag."

All that said, The Hobbit is still cute and epic at the same time, and Bilbo Baggins is still one of the greatest Unlikely Heroes ever written. And I still think that joke about the invention of golf is hilarious.
bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
One of them is named Boudicca.

Totally not in honor of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie at all, because I totally forgot about it, I finally got around to reading what was once and Advance Reading Copy of Adrienne Kress' Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. I don't know what you would call it now, as it is no longer in advance of the release of the book, which happened in 2007. If I ever am blessed with advance reading copies of anything else, I will try to read them in a timely enough fashion that the review will be all hip and useful to people and stuff. 

Anyway, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman was something halfway between the sort of thing I really like to read and the sort of thing I could see myself writing on a day when I was feeling inordinately clever and pleased with myself, in that it is a fun swashbuckling adventure involving kidnapping and pirates and conspiracies and lost treasure and a spontaneous musical number, but it is also distinctly aimed at nerdy ten-year-olds who consider themselves immensely superior to their peers, and not twenty-something-year-old overeducated former nerdy-ten-year-olds-who-considered-themselves-immensely-superior-to-their-peers. So some of the tropes struck me as a little tropey and some of the jokes struck me as a little twee, but this is hardly surprising, since I basically picked it up off the shelf at random because I was annoyed that I did not have my copies of A Song of Ice and Fire on hand for rereading. (Waaay different kind of story.) It makes ample use of Authorial Voice in the tradition of Victorian children's stories, and it still contains pirates, and it never quite tells you when or where the story is supposed to take place, which sort of leaves the reader (if the reader is me, anyway) sort of assuming it takes place in late nineteenth-century England from the diction, and then getting very jarred when things like laptops and plastic gloves and sophisticatedly computerized refrigerators show up. 

Our Heroine is ten-year-old Alexandra Morningside, a nerdy ten-year-old who is immensely superior to her peers. She goes to the very prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy, and becomes very good friend with her sixth grade teacher, Mr. Underwood, who is a pretty cool dude and teaches her fencing and things (she is, of course, quite good at fencing, because no matter how nerdy your Adventure Protagonist For Nerdy Children is, they are always good at martial athletics. This is why I could never be a nerdy children's book Adventure Protagonist). Alex learns of an ancient feud between the families of Wigpowder and Steele, where Wigpowder was an infamous pirate and Steele was the philanthropist that made sure half of his fortune got turned into a prestigious academy after his death. The feud concerns the other half of the treasure, which has, of course, been buried. Several generations later, Steele's last descendant has become an infamous pirate, and Wigpowder's last descendant is Mr. Underwood. Mr. Underwood gets kidnapped by pirates who think he knows where the treasure is, which he doesn't. Alex finds out, but does not get kidnapped by the pirates because she gets temporarily kidnapped by hilariously evil and gross old ladies instead, and so when she escapes she goes on a grand quest to rescue her teacher and help him find the buried pirate treasure that is his birthright. Alex' adventures on her way to kidnap her teacher are ridiculously funny and just to the side of the sort of thing you'd expect them to be. In addition to more run-ins with the hilariously evil old ladies, Alex meets a drunken magician, a super-fancy hotelier who is attempting (rather disastrously) to run his hotel via mind-reading, a kindly Navy captain, a movie crew attempting to film a movie with a (or rather, the) Extremely Ginormous Octopus, and a train full of rather twenties-style partiers where time doesn't move right. And this doesn't even get us to the pirates, who are quite an entertaining crew indeed. 

I quite enjoyed this book but I must admit that at the end I found myself less wanting to read Kress' second book than I did just wanting to hang out with Adrienne Kress, because I think that we seem to both have similar interests, such as pseudo-Victorian children's stories, badass lady pirates, and making personal asides to the Reader while ostensibly talking about someone else's story in order to show off how witty we are. 
 
I may read the second book anyway, once I am off my books-buying abstinent stint.
bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
Okay, I have no idea how to go about reviewing a choose-your-own-adventure book. And before you ask, it was RESEARCH. For serious. Okay?

Um, this one was called Pirate Treasure of the Onyx Dragon and it was as glorious as the title suggested. Description-free, second-person You and your sister Hannah go to spend the summer with your aunt Lydia on her island off the coast of Seattle, and decide to investigate the whereabouts of a sunken ship that one of your ancestors sunked a hundred years ago. There are many ways to go about this, landing you in various tropey situations such as chasing smugglers via scuba diving, getting shanghaid off to Shanghei by Chinese mobsters, and being the very special white people who get the privilege of listening to sekrit tribal stories by a bunch of wise old Indians. (You may not have any description, but from the illustrations and descriptions of your relatives, you're probably white.) In one story arc there is a badass lady pirate; in another one, some jewel thieves and their overdressed patron known only as The Duchess. You may also end up in a cave with bats! As is necessary for any good CYOA book, about a third of the fourteen possible endings result in your death.

I seriously do not know what else to say about this; it was very short and it was a CYOA book about searching for pirate treasure with your little sister. It was fun and cheesy. I would not particularly recommend it unless you are under 12 years of age or are, for some bizarre reason, in need of doing research on choose-your-own-adventure books.
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)

On Liz’ recommendation, I finally got around to reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, which I ~mysteriously~ found in my basement a few years ago and had been vaguely intending on reading ever since. It is a big mysterious mystery where these books came from, since I literally just found the boxed set sitting in the basement one day and nobody has any idea where they came from. (It is likely that someone gave them to my mom and she forgot about it, but it is more fun to say that it is mysterious than that we sometimes forget about stuff.)

The Dark Is Rising Sequence (according to the box, it is a Sequence, rather than a Series or Quartet) consists of four books, all of which follow a young boy named Will Stanton. Will is an Old One, despite only being eleven, because he is the last of a group of immortals called the Old Ones, who can travel through time and have all sorts of magic powers and whose job it is to stop the Dark (the supreme force of Evil in the universe) from defeating the Light (you get the idea) and taking over the world and doing that which the Side of Evil in Epic Fantasy Epics always like to do.

The first book, The Dark Is Rising, covers little Will’s awakening as an Old One on his eleventh birthday, when he gets a letter from Hogwarts meets another Old One named Merriman and starts being taken out of Time and learns gramarye (“knowing,” i.e. “how to use magic,” and I’m pretty sure it shares a root with “grammar”), and is given his first quest, which is to unite six Signs from where they are hidden in different places and times around England. The six Signs all together make up one of the four Things of Power, which the Old Ones will need to defeat the Dark when they have their final rising in the fourth book, because more MacGuffins means more fun for everyone. The very formal, very dramatic, very epic-fantasy-book-ful nature of the scenes involving the Dark and time travel and the Old Ones are mitigated by the adorable family scenes, in which Will and his parents and his eight brothers and sisters are all wholesome rural English farm people (although his dad is actually a jeweler) who bicker and eat and drink a lot of tea and are just so adorable and British. The story takes place between Will’s birthday on Midwinter’s Day and goes through the twelve days of Christmas, when the Dark is most able to wield their power and try to disrupt Will’s quest, and bury England under a Snowpocalypse kind of like this year. Can Will find all six MacGuffins and join them into a single MacGuffin and save his family and temporarily defeat Lord Voldemort the Dark Rider?

Greenwitch takes place the following summer in a picturesque little fishing village in Cornwall. Simon, Jane and Barney Drew had discovered a golden grail there the summer before, and it has just been stolen out of the National Museum. With the help of their Great-Uncle Merry who is actually Will’s master Merriman, and Will Stanton, and a picturesque cast of Cornwallian (Cornwellian?) characters including a gouty captain and a dog, they will have to defeat an array of weird characters of the Dark to recover the grail and find the manuscript that decodes the engravings on it, which one of them had thrown into the ocean the year before. This all gets a little difficult when the ancient ceremony of the Greenwitch is held, where the locals build a giant witch out of trees and rocks and offer it to the sea as a sacrifice. The Greenwitch claims the manuscript, and the Light and Dark both want to convince her to give it up, but the Greenwitch belongs neither to the Light nor the Dark, since apparently good and evil are really low down on the list of supreme powers in the universe. High Magic is higher, and so is Wild Magic, which is what the Greenwitch and the ocean have.

In the third book, The Grey King, we move to Wales, which is EVEN MORE picturesque and rural and adorable than Buckinghamshire or Cornwall. The book features some handy scenes in which Bran, an albino boy with a ~mysterious past~, teaches Will how to pronounce Welsh place-names, which was quite useful even if it didn’t move the plot forward for an entire half chapter. In this book, Will has to acquire a lost golden harp (Thing of Power #3), so that he can wake six Sleepers and banish the Grey King and vanquish evil foxes and some other stuff, and Bran can learn about his mysterious past. There are also a lot of altercations with a nasty sheep farmer named Caradog Pritchard, who wants to shoot everybody’s dogs. We learn a lot about Welsh history and mythology, including some odd takes on the King Arthur legends. Everyone drinks a lot of tea, and there are a LOT of sheep.

The fourth and final book is Silver on the Tree, which brings us back to Wales. This time, Simon, Jane and Barney Drew are on holiday in Wales, and so is Will, and of course Bran lives there. The five children and Merriman make up “the Six,” which means they all have important parts to play when the Light wields the four Things of Power to stop the Dark from winning their final Rising. First they have to get the fourth Thing, which is a crystal sword, which made me laugh so hard I almost died. (Maybe a crystal sword was less cheesy when these books were written thirty-five years ago. When did crystals get overdone to the point of being always silly?) Bran’s mysterious past is extremely important in this plot, and there are hints of a childlike attraction between him and Jane that doesn’t really go anywhere. This book is even heavier on all sorts of old British Isles history and mythology that I’d never heard of, all about medieval Welsh uprisings and King Arthur and glass towers and things. I felt like the grand climax of the Dark’s final attempt at Rising was a little strained, what with the really complicated choreography of fourteen hundred MacGuffins (now including a tree and a very specific bunch of flowers) and destinies (way more than the allotted Six) and too many myths all showing up at once. But it was a really good ride getting there.

The series as a whole is an odd mix of epic and adorable, and somehow the flavor of it kind of reminds me of Monica Furlong’s Wise Child, which I read several hundred times as a child. It’s got that whole creepy rural-Celtic-Britain mythos going on, which always has a particular feel, and which I really can’t find the proper words for. The Dark is Rising Sequence clearly shares a lot of tropes with The Lord of the Rings, but somehow comes off as a lot darker, despite being written for a much younger audience. It might just be the contrast between the main plot and all the adorable sheep-farming scenes, though.

Like many British novels, this series induced me to drink several dozen cups of tea while I was reading it.

NOTE: Amazon tells me there are actually FIVE books in this series, WHAT IS THIS I MUST FIND IT AND READ IT.

NOTE #2: The post title is not from this series; it is something a Nac Mac Feegle says (more or less) in one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books.

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