26 February 2004

My Life as a Book...

You're Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!

by Mark Twain

With an affinity for floating down the river, you see things in black and white. The world is strange and new to you and the more you learn about it, the less it makes sense. You probably speak with an accent and others have a hard time understanding you and an even harder time taking you seriously. Nevertheless, your adventurous spirit is admirable. You really like straw hats.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

23 February 2004

Half Magic

Just finished Emily Drake's The Magickers and The Curse of Arkady.

DAW Books is billing these as "America's answer to Harry Potter."

Well...maybe. The few reviews I've read by children, who are, of course, the target audience, are mostly good. The few adult reviews I've read are universally bad.

Overall I'm not surprised. While Rowling is perfectly serious about her "Potterverse," there's a nice thread of humor running through all of her novels, whether it's with character names, situations, dog Latin spells, or pokes at Muggle politics and news. There is no subtle humor running through Drake at all, and her efforts to get us to believe that everything we're reading is real (Potter book references are scattered in the Magickers novels) just reinforce that this is a story, and her stereotypical characters (including your usual Native American character who "follows the old ways" and the bonny red-haired Irish lass who of course speaks with a brogue) don't make it any easier.

Not to mention that the books have some American conventions that have just gotten old.

For instance, Drake's adults are in general...well, stupid. There are good adults and bad adults in the Potterverse, but I can't really say any of them are stupid, not even the Dursleys. Drake's adults recruit our budding magic users from clever essay-writers, drop the ball ("Well, guess what, kids, you're potential Magickers!") on them when they get to camp (this after the kids are already suspicious from a really odd bus ride), and then don't even instruct them well enough when they first start magic use so that one of the students is lost in the ether for a week. And of course then it's not the adults who figure out what has happened, despite all their so-called skill, it's our hero, Jason Adrian. One can't imagine Dumbledore, McGonagal, or any of the Hogwarts staff being so thick.

Not to mention that in the second book, the children all believe they are victims of something called The Curse of Arkady. What is it? The author reveals this...in an interview which I read online. Is it mentioned in the book, even at the end? Noooo, we--and they--are supposed to figure it out for ourselves. (There is a surprise in the second book that I didn't expect, but it comes pretty late.)

Jason is a odd duck anyway. His mother died when he was small; a year or so later his father remarried, bringing him Joanna, his stepmother, and his stepsister. Then Jason's dad died and his stepmother married a building contractor, William "the Dozer" McGuire, leaving him in the odd situation of having two stepparents. Aha! you say. This sounds familiar. But no, the "Dozer" is not the evil stepdad, nor is Joanna an evil stepmother, yet the tiresome convention of our hero having to be in conflict with his parents is tossed in anyway. This kid spends two books agonizing if his stepparents even like him (this after they are willing to send him to an expensive soccer camp in the first book, just because he wants to go, and his stepmother fusses over him playing soccer because she's afraid it's too dangerous, and in the second book his stepdad purchases him a top-of-the-line computer although Jason only asks for something simple to do homework and get on the Internet with, plus also agrees Jason should get counseling when the school recommends it for the boy's well-being). It's as if the attitude is tossed in so that Jason will have something "in common" with the book's audience. Jason, hon, these folks do like you. I'm sure they even love you. Get a clue, okay?

Jason--surprise!--turns out to be a special type of Magicker, one whom the adults really need in their fight against the evil faction of their group. (Oh, goody, yet another evil splinter group.) He has a Potter contingent of running buddies, a girl named Bailey and a boy named Trent (who just happen to have a loving relationship with their parents, just like Hermoine and Ron), plus there's the awkward fat boy, the gorgeous girl, and the two Neanderthal types who actually do turn out to be good guys and a politically-correct racial mix of other kids who blend into the woodwork with astonishing ease. And lest one cliche be left out, there's also a cute animal character who appears midway in the first book.

Let's say I'm interested in enough of the plot threads and the characters to pick up the next one–when it comes out in paperback. Not sure if that makes me stubborn or just stupid. I am hoping Drake finally breaks the mold of predictable events and personalities and surprises me.

13 February 2004

Angels and Demons

Despite the "hook" at the beginning, it took me a long time to get into this book, and by then things had started to sound familiar. I couldn't figure out why until Wednesday night. Half asleep in bed, I mused over incredible feats, clues and ciphers followed, mysterious buildings, staccato sentences, short cliffhanger chapters predominating...then it hit me. The Circus Boys, The Boy Aviators, The Pony Rider Boys, The Campfire Girls...all those old children's adventure series novels I've been downloading from Black Mask. Dan Brown's taken them all, mixed them together, added modern adult props--sex, graphic violence, computers, conspiracy theories, a touch of the (so-called) occult--tossed bits of Indiana Jones in, and come up with Angels and Demons. Somewhere along the line Phil Forrest of the Circus Boys and Robert Langdon have to be related.

Not that it doesn't draw you in with its theories about Illuminati, Masons, and the Catholic church--not to mention that twist at the end that's a doozy. It's a skillful juggling of plot in underground laboratories, underground vaults, underground libraries, hidden pyramids, hidden symbols, dark corners, dark chapels, dark squares and dark towers. I was told by someone that the revelations in this novel are "scary." What scares me is that, apparently according to reviews I'm reading, there are folks out there that think this rubbish is real. Good God, between Dan Brown and Anne Perry, you've got enough conspiracy theories to do another season of The X-Files. There's a reason they call this "fiction," folks.

Sigh. If you want to read a good novel with occult leanings and secret societies which is so well-written that you'll wonder if it was true, go find a copy of Katharine Kurtz's Lammas Night, okay? Angels and Demons works as pulp, but that's about it.

11 February 2004

The Older Brother You Always Wished You Had

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had some problem with "classics" as a child because I preferred reading animal stories.

This didn't go for all classics. I adored Rebecca Randall, she of Sunnybrook Farm, and Rose Campbell, the sole girl among the Eight Cousins, for instance, and the Miss Pickerel and Danny Dunn books they had at school. But the moment the love story in a classic reared its ugly head--like Meg and John Brooke--I was outta there.

Which explains why I never got through Gene Stratton Porter's Freckles as a kid, even though my mom had bought me the Whitman copy. I thought Freckles himself was brave, having survived what was described as a brutal childhood and the loss of a hand, and the Limberlost sounded like a delightfully mysterious place. But oh, my, then came the mooning over the Swamp Angel and I was gone.

I finally got through Freckles after reading A Girl of the Limberlost, in which an older Freckles and Swamp Angel appear, as an adult. Elnora's story was more compelling that Freckles', I thought, especially the revelation and reformation of embittered Kate Comstock (I was particularly fascinated in the chapter where Kate "peels" her skin so she will look more like a respectable city woman), even if I skimmed a lot of the fulsome love story chapters.

Recently I finished my latest foray into Porter, Laddie: A True Blue Story, as an e-Book, which I loved. So far it is my favorite of her books.

Laddie is the eldest of the twelve Stanton children still left at home on the big sprawling farmstead in the Indiana hills. His story, that of his love for "the Princess" a.k.a. Miss Pamela Pryor and of his final decision to be a farmer despite his education, is told by the youngest member of the household, "Little Sister" as everyone calls her, who seems to be about eight. (She says she has an old-fashioned--and, presumably as religious as the family is, probably Biblical--name, but she is always called "Little Sister," Laddie's nickname for her.) Little Sister, in her delightful, exuberant voice, also addresses the problem of the cold spinster schoolteacher who boards with the Stantons, the mystery of "the Princess'" unfriendly father, her sister Sally's wedding, her musical sister Shelley's romantic problems, and the adventures of her other brother, mischievous Leon, who for one-heart stopping chapter looks like he might end up the family disgrace--not to mention the leitmotif of most Porter novels, the love of birds and nature.

Although it's as decidedly as old-fashioned as Little Sister's real name given its era, this is also a very funny and very sentimental book, with some moments of high adventure and drama, not to mention lovely descriptions of the beautiful countryside. Some of these older books appall me or bore me; Laddie is neither appalling nor boring. He's the older brother everyone wishes they had. Recommended.

07 February 2004

Especially Gladys

I first met Gladys Taber in junior high.

Oh, not in person. She lived in Connecticut and I was just this kid in Rhode Island. But as I haunted the Hugh B. Bain library for something of interest, I found a copy of her Especially Dogs...Especially at Stillmeadow.

I was "the kid without a dog." That's how I thought of myself. Even into my teens, I didn't want a boyfriend--men required too much darn maintenance, I knew from dealing with my father and uncles--or a pretty dress. Well, maybe I wanted a bike, too. I finally got a bike in ninth grade after Dr. Sarni and I convinced Dad I wasn't going to get run over by some crazy driver. But I never got the dog because of my allergies. It would have to live outside if we had one, Dr. Freedman said, and even then he couldn't recommend it.

So I coveted everyone else's dogs and read dog books. And that's how I met Gladys Taber and her Irish setters Maeve and Holly, and the cocker spaniels Honey and Teddy and Kon-tiki and Sister and Star. While reading about her dogs I also learned something about her 200-year-old farmhouse, Stillmeadow. At some point, I did find one of her Stillmeadow books, but I wasn't quite old enough for it yet. I was still into animals and adventure, and her lyrical prose about country living was as yet too tame for me.

Yet something about her writing lurked in me for years. In May of 1998 we visited my mother and took James to Mystic Seaport. As I scanned the bookshelves in the gift shop a familiar word appeared before my eyes. "Oh, my ears and whiskers! Stillmeadow books!" James and Mom didn't get it. My heart did.

I took these paperback reprints home and devoured them. When I got done I hunted down a couple of her books at the library and realized I wanted all of them. The Good Lord gave us the internet for something wonderful: finding out-of-print books. And so I found them on Bookfinder.com and on E-bay for a few dollars each and felt rich as Bill Gates as I read Mrs. Taber's lovely prose: the hardships and happiness of country living, her lively dogs and eccentric cats, her friend Jill who shared the home with her after the death of her [Jill's] husband, the birds and other animals and also the plants of the surrounding countryside, her friendships, her views on the seasons and on life. Now with a home of my own, although decidedly suburb-bound, I was kin with her.

This essay on Gladys Taber was prompted by the fact that I picked up her novel Mrs. Daffodil in the library last week. She wrote a monthly column for the Ladies' Home Journal and later Family Circle, plus short stories--and also had several works of fiction published, none of which I had read.

What a delight to find then that Mrs. Daffodil is simply a novelization--all names filed off, of course--of her life at Stillmeadow with dogs and companion, with episodes sad and absurd...possibly so absurd that they were the reason they never made it into her Stillmeadow books. Mrs. Daffodil, like Gladys Taber, writes a monthly column called "Butternut Wisdom," shares her house "Driftway" with her friend Kay, an Irish setter and numerous cocker spaniels, greets unexpected visitors who admire her column (they always show up at the wrong time), deals with sad times in the community, her daughter's romance, endless attempts at getting hired help and starting yet another diet, and yet always, despite the disasters, finds joy in the surroundings and people around her.

For Stillmeadow fans, it's just another delight to read and enjoy.

Gladys Taber's Stillmeadow website