Tuesday, May 13, 2008


American Fairy Tales
by L. Frank Baum
Recommended Age: 8+

One of the trophies of my shopping spree at New York's Books of Wonder is this charmingly illustrated collection of short stories, reprinted by Dover, by the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and many other magical stories.

Originally published in newspapers in 1901 as a syndicated series, the American Fairy Tales are a fascinating, though perhaps flawed, attempt to plant the magic of fairies and folk tales in the modern, scientific, commercialized soil of the U.S.A. Martin Gardner correctly points out in his introduction that a good part of the magic is squished out of the stories by such statements as "You are on Prairie Avenue, in Chicago." On the other hand, Baum more than makes up for this miscalculation with his sharp wit and his instinct for the right bit of nonsense at the right time. And perhaps, if you squint at them just so, these little mundane details (like "Prairie Avenue") work to the story's advantage. What American child since 1901 hasn't hoped that the paved roads, telephone wires, and steel I-beams of our world might not forever seal every door into the world of make-believe?

In "The Box of Robbers," a little girl living on guess-what-street in guess-what-town gets a silly surprise when she unlocks the lid of a trunk in the attic. The way she talks three Italian bandits out of robbing her house is as funny as the tongue-in-cheek "moral of the story."

"The Glass Dog" tells of the bargain between a magician and a glassblower, a tale in which everybody gets exactly what he or she deserves, though perhaps not in the way you would expect!

In "The Queen of Quok," a mischievous boy king cleverly avoids the awful fate of having to auction off his own hand in marriage in order to replenish the palace treasury.

"The Girl Who Owned a Bear" nearly gets eaten by it after a book agent, in revenge against her father, gives the girl a book whose pages come to life.

"The Enchanted Types" features a fairy-creature called a knook - a species that, I believe, Baum was the first to describe - who tries to do a good deed by freeing a flock of stuffed birds from a hat shop. The knook grows more and more desperate to make up for the harm his magic has unwittingly unleashed on the fashion world of 1901 - which, apart from a few details, sounds a lot like the fashion world of today!

An aspiring actress orders "The Magic Bon Bons" from a wizard, but someone else takes them home by mistake. First-year Potions students should read this is a cautionary tale.

"The Capture of Father Time" happens in a whimsical way, thanks to a cowboy's son named Jim and his skill with a lasso. As rare bit of early science fiction this story is priceless!

"The Wonderful Pump" tells how a poor farmer and his wife squandered a magical gift from a grateful beetle. (It's too bad that Baum spoils the magic by explaining how it worked.)

"The Dummy That Lived" is the wistful story of a wax lady in a shop window who, thanks to a mischievous fairy, comes to life. Unfortunately, knowledge of the world did not come with the package.

"The King of the Polar Bears" survives being skinned by humans, with the help of his friends the gulls. But can a feathered bear rule over his own kind?

And finally, "The Mandarin and the Butterfly" concerns a child-hating Chinaman (yes, it's that "politically incorrect," but remember when it was written). Forced to flee his native land, the Mandarin starts a laundry and makes a wicked bargain with a trapped butterfly -- a bargain that involves turning children into pigs!

If you love collections of fairy tales, especially books like Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and Nesbit's The Magic World, check this book out. Perhaps you will agree that Baum graces the Mother Goose tradition with a delightful quirkiness that is distinctly American. If so, and again like me, you may also be interested in some of Baum's other non-Oz titles, such as Mother Goose in Prose and The Master Key.

The Enchanted Island of Yew
by L. Frank Baum
Recommended Age: 10+

Can a sex change take place in a fairy tale? Evidently, L. Frank Baum thought so. In Ozma of Oz, Baum transformed a mischievous boy into a perfect princess. And in this stand-alone book, recently re-decorated and re-issued by Books of Wonder, a female fairy is transfigured into a dashing young knight. Of course, with immortal fairies, one sex is as good as another; and in the medieval-type setting of the imaginary Island of Yew, boys get to have a lot more adventures than girls.

A fairy can only be transformed by the magical wish of a mortal. This particular fairy asks Seseley, a duke's daughter, to turn her into a knight for one year. Then, in the guise of Prince Marvel, she/he sets out to make her/his fortune.

All right, let's go with "his" for the time being. Though he is every bit a boy, Prince Marvel also remains a fairy, so there is really nothing he can't do and no trouble he can't get out of. This summons forth the main weakness of this book: the hero is never really in any great danger, and hardly anything troubles him. This isn't so for his faithful squire, a silly youth named Nerle whose fondest wish is to suffer misfortune, pain, and unfulfilled desire. Nerle is the one thing that saves this book from becoming a bore.

Marvel and Nerle travel through all the kingdoms of the Island of Yew, exploring realms no outsider has ever seen. They compel a band of robbers to reform. They become unwilling guests of a hideous king who is afraid to let them go because he doesn't want them spreading word of his ugliness. They visit a hidden kingdom where everything and everybody is doubled. (I know you won't understand that; you'll just have to read the book!) They free one kingdom from a tyrranical wizard (who rules by threat of turning people into grasshoppers), and another from a terrible red-headed giant. They face war, execution, enchantment, and even a magic mirror before Marvel's year as a human boy ends.

It's a charming story with a touch of romance and a very quirky ending. If you can't get enough Oz, visit Books of Wonder and look up this interesting rarity!

The Tiger's Egg
by Jon Berkeley
Recommended Age: 11+

I was delighted to hear from Jon Berkeley after I reviewed the first book of his "Wednesday Tales" trilogy, The Palace of Laughter. I would have been even more delighted to review the free copy of this second book that he meant to have sent to me. Unfortunately, his publisher never followed through. I ended up getting the book as a gift anyway, so all's well that ends well.

In The Palace of Laughter we met Miles Wednesday, an orphan devoted to his toy bear Tangerine; an angel-on-earth appropriately named Little; and many members of an evil circus that traveled around, stealing the joy from people's lives. Since the leader of the Circus Oscuro, the Great Cortado, has been locked up in a mental ward, his old clowns - the three Bolsillo Brothers - have started a new show and taken it on the road. The Bolsillos invite Miles and Little along on their summer tour, employing Little in a high-wire act and to arrange the music for the band (music which releases people from the enchantment the Great Cortado put on them), and employing Miles as a knife thrower's assistant, pooper scooper, and all-around dogsbody.

Things are going swell until the Great Cortado breaks out of the hospital and begins planning his revenge against the boy who put him there. Also, a less-than-trustworthy circus fortune-teller leads Miles into danger with the promise of helping him learn more about his parents' fate. Miles learns, almost too late, that Doctor Tau-Tau has betrayed him to a tribe of hairy, cave-dwelling people called the Fir Bolg. Tau-Tau and the Fir Bolg think Miles has a powerful treasure called the Tiger's Egg - perhaps because Miles occasionally meets and talks with a wild tiger that always turns up just when he is desperate for help.

Escaping the Fir Bolg without having his belly slit open (for they think the Egg is inside Miles) proves to be only the first of many hazardous adventures as Miles fends off attempts on his life, helps recapture the savage Null, begins learning to use powers he hardly understands (powers the well-named Shriveled Fella calls "the bright hands" and "the far eyes"), and prises the truth about his mother and father, morsel by morsel, out of the reluctant craw of the Bolsillo Brothers.

Those Bolsillos! They surely have the gift of comic patter; the Marx Brothers hold nothing over them! But good as their intentions are, they are reluctant to tell Miles the whole truth; so they use their patter to evade his questions. Among Berkeley's more astonishing achievements in this book is the way Gila, Umor, and Fabio Bolsillo resist Miles' inquisitiveness, managing to be breathtakingly funny, chillingly grim, and touchingly sad at almost the same time. Many other endearing (or, in some cases, repulsive) characters from the first book are back too, from the by-the-book constable to the police sergeant who yearns in vain for a good night's sleep; from the blind old sailor whose story-within-a-story is worth the whole book to the crooked Pinchbuckets and their latest dastardly daftness.

The most moving revelation of the book comes near the end, promising an even deeper and more dangerous journey in the final book of the trilogy. I will be looking for it. I may even spend money on it!

The Slippery Map
by N. E. Bode
Recommended Age: 12+

This story, supposedly told to N. E. Bode by the nuns themselves, is about a boy named Oyster R. Motel (!), raised in the convent where he was left in a basket as a tiny baby. Though the unpleasant Mrs. Fishback (who "helps" the silent nuns with any business that requires speaking) has nothing nice to say about Oyster, he is clearly loved by the nuns - especially Sister Mary Many Pockets, who found him on the steps. Nevertheless, Oyster is lonely. He longs to have friends, to have adventures beyond the rules and boundaries of the convent, and above all to find his parents.

Then weird things start to happen. Rips open in the fabric of the world, sucking children into them and spitting them out again. One of them finally comes for Oyster, taking not only the boy but also Mrs. Fishback's disgusting, fat dachshund named Leatherbelly. It turns out not to be alien abduction, though. Instead, Oyster has been sucked into an imaginary world created, a generation ago, by two children his age. The creators have become trapped in their own world, and now Oyster is the one who must save them. Why, you ask? Answer: They're his parents!

Oyster's parents are the authors of a truly odd little fantasy world, populated by various types and sizes of fairies, as well as by some dangerous creatures that take a good deal of avoiding. But their charming country has become an environmental and political nightmare, as everything has been taken over by a brutal ruler named Dark Mouth, whose toad-like minions force little people called Perths to slave in his sugar factory, eat sugar, breathe sugar, and so forth. Guided by an unlikely pair of Perths named Hopps and Ringet, and helped (sometimes reluctantly) by various others, Oyster sets off on a quest that takes him over a breathing river, through an underground world infested by dirt clams and spider wolves, through a dangerous forest, and up an unforgiving mountain. He meets a guru, a dragon, a TV personality (the personification of evil), and finally a monstrous warlord whose prisons are full of good people - including Oyster's mom and dad.

Here is a very sound story that should appeal to anyone who likes (for example) The Gammage Cup. It is a warm-hearted, sometimes moving, often funny tale full of strange images, happy surprises, and plenty of thrills. It seems there is, after all, a future for "N. E. Bode" (a.k.a. Julianna Baggott) outside "his" (?) series about Fern, Howard, and The Anybodies. In fact, this book is a healthy sign that, where young-readers' fiction is concerned, Baggott is just getting warmed up. I think this is her best work in this field so far.

Pure Dead Batty
(UK title: Deep Water)
by Debi Gliori
Recommended Age: 12+

The fifth of six books featuring the, ahem, colorful Strega-Borgia family of Auchenlochtermuchty, Scotland, is a bit of a downer, at least to begin with. At the end of the previous adventure (Pure Dead Trouble, a.k.a. Deep Trouble), the redoutable nanny Mrs. McLachlan sank into the waters of Lochnagargoyle and didn't come back to the surface.

What 13-year-old Titus, his sister Pandora, and their baby sister Damp - the most freakishly powerful sorcerer in training pants - don't know is that Mrs. McLachlan is immortal, and that she has taken refuge on an island on the edge of Death's realm, hoping to keep the all-powerful Chronostone from falling into the hands of the Prince of Darkness. Together with a fiend from hell, Flora remains marooned because Death refuses to take possession of the stone unless a mortal willingly passes into his realm with it - and because the thread that anchors her to her home has slipped out of the frozen fingers of the cryogenically-preserved Strega-Nonna.

How do the kids and their magical-beast friends get into deep water? Damp's growing ability to plunge into the world of stories and make-believe, along with her chatty bat familiar, has something to do with it. So do Pandora's camera with its mysterious power to capture images of the past, the new member of Titus's band with his non-mysterious power to cheese everybody off, the potion that makes Titus burst out into full (but premature) manhood just in time for the attractive young replacement nanny to arrive, the moving and talking portraits in the "ancestors' room," and the messages spelled out in letter-shaped refrigerator magnets. Meanwhile, their father has been arrested for murder, their evil Uncle Lucifer has hired The Devil Himself to put a hit on the whole family, and Marie Bain (remember, the worst French cook in the world?) gets her ultimate revenge.

If Harry Potter ignited in you a burning interest in things magical and Scottish, here's the series for you. It has loads of creatures that would make Hagrid's eyes dance with joy. It has bizarre, reality-bending magic. It has a castleful of whimsical marvels. It has bad guys of over-the-top campiness. It has violence, sadness, humor, and a lot of upchucking, besides other grossness. And it has one more book to go: Pure Dead Frozen.

Pure Dead Frozen
(UK title: Deep Fear)
by Debi Gliori
Recommended Age: 12+

In this sixth and last book about the flamboyant, magical, and chaotic Strega-Borgia family of Scotland, Satan (oops, I mean S'tan) becomes the star of a TV cooking show. Hell freezes over - literally. An army of miniature warriors settle a lifelong, deadly rivalry between two brothers. One lucky couple is struck by love at first sight. Two new members of the family come into the world, and one leaves it. A demon changeling is substituted for Titus and Pandora's baby brother. Time travel, trouble with wolves and dragons, a battle for the fate of the cosmos, a duel between a baby and a demon to see which can make the other more miserable, and a reluctant assassin's battle to protect his family drive the "Pure Dead" series to its final resolution.

In this book, you will meet a salamander with a lisp; an over-talkative bat; a pregnant dragon having second thoughts about her engagement to a loch monster; and a fairy tale come to life in "our" world, which makes an interesting change from Damp's growing power to enter the world of fairy tales. Like one of the characters in this book, it was evidently time for this series to "move on to the next great adventure" (borrowing a phrase from Dumbledore); but oh! what an end it makes, going out in a blaze of glory!

If you have enjoyed this series, as I have, you may be sorry to see it end. But I think it ends on just the right note, and at the right time too. If I had to complain about anything (and, you know, I usually do), it is the crowded canvas - crammed with so many character- and plot-threads, weaving together so densely and rapidly, that one worries whether it is really possible to tie them all up in a fulfilling way. But as to the sparkle, the energy, the vitality of Ms. Gliori's concluding fantasy, I can make no complaint.

From the obligatory "Dramatis Personae" list to the poetic justice that befalls its villains, Pure Dead Frozen strains Shakespeare through a sieve of children's cartoons, Mafia movies, Mother-Goose tales, and a joy of making evil look ridiculous. And as it ends, one feels a warm sense of knowing the author and the wild, weird, chaotic family she honors and lampoons. She both welcomes us into her home and warns us of the crocodile in the bathtub, the non-potty-trained baby dragon in the cellar, and the smart-mouthed tarantula whose nest is in the teapot. It is a home one enjoys visiting.

The Victory Garden
by Lee Kochenderfer
Recommended Age: 11+

For Teresa Marks and her father, their tomato-growing competition against Mr. Burt next door is very important. For one thing, growing garden vegetables is part of the war effort in a small Kansas town in 1943. In case you missed your history class, that's during World War II, when Teresa's brother Jeff and many other young Americans went to Europe or the Pacific to fight against Germany and Japan. Which brings up another, even bigger reason the tomato contest is important: it keeps Mr. Marks's mind off worrying about his son.

From the vantage point of 2008 (as I write this review), it is hard to imagine the burden this country's people carried, much less the courage and good cheer with which they carried it. We are distressed by a current war which claimed 5,000 American lives in its first 4 years; in my grandparents' generation, our country gave up over 400,000 lives to a war we were in for only 4 years. We are discouraged by prices in fuel (that haven't stopped us driving our cars), food (that haven't changed our eating habits), and other commodities (which we have continued to buy without letup, in spite of the late dip in our economy). Back then, the U.S. and the world in general was still recovering from a decade of depression, poverty, and famine in which many families lost everything they had; and in order to contribute to the "war effort," most Americans cheerfully gave up many of the comforts and plenties we take for granted. They saved pennies to buy war bonds; they saved junk that we would throw away as material for weapons and uniforms; and while farms grew food to ship to the boys "over there," people like the Burts and the Markses planted "victory gardens" so that they could save money and stretch the nation's food supply.

In 1943, just as the growing season is getting under way, Mr. Burt has an accident and must spend a while in a hospital out of town. Knowing what I have already said about the importance of their tomato rivalry, Teresa fights back against the plan to till Mr. Burt's garden under. She recruits kids from her school class to take over the Burts' garden as a project for the "war effort," selling the vegetables they grow to buy war bonds, and challenging her own father to the tomato duel at the county fair. Little does she realize how much work will be involved - sometimes backbreaking, sometimes heartbreaking. Little does she know that her do-good project will send her across the path of a runaway dog, a troubled boy, the local grouch, and a tragic young hero.

As Teresa follows the exploits of America's fighters in the air (like her own brother), tracing the war's progress on a big map on the dining room wall, so you will enjoy mapping Teresa's trajectory from naivete to wisdom, from childish bravado to courage, from focusing on the concerns of her immediate family to opening her heart to a wider community. It is an interesting journey to follow with one's imagination. We can only hope that such a spirit remains in our people, ready to rise to a challenge like the ones faced by Teresa's generation. [EDIT: Check out Ms. Kochenderfer's website for more information!]

The Nutmeg of Consolation
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

Book 14 of the "Aubreyiad" finds Capt. Jack Aubrey, Dr. Stephen Maturin, and 155 of their shipmates just where The Thirteen Gun Salute left them: marooned on an uninhabited South China Sea island after an uncharted shoal and a spectacular storm conspired to wreck their HMS Diane. With the local game population dwindling, the possibility of starvation looms in the not-too-distant future. Their one hope is to build a small boat out of the wreckage of the Diane, and send someone across perilous waters to fetch help for those left behind. But then a band of Malay pirates arrive, as desperate as the Dianes to control the island's water supply and prepared to fight to the last man to seize it. You think you have problems?

If you thus far followed the progress of Patrick O'Brian's twenty-part novel of naval and political warfare in the age of Napoleon, you might have started to grow restless after a long stretch with no fully-realized battle scenes. Might have, but probably haven't, because of the captivating characters of Jack and Stephen, the many passions of their lives (from music and botany to gunnery and deep-water sailing), and the people, places, and events surrounding them. Plus you have had courtroom drama, collisions of personalities (not all of them quite healthy), fascinating cultures, terrifying weather, and the intrigues of a highly skilled intelligence agent to absorb your attention. But even so, just suppose you have been hungering for a good, gruesome, shockingly violent battle. Would it thrill you to know that this book practically begins with one? Yes, I dare say it would.

It is a land battle, to be sure. But it's a ferocious one. And naval gunnery is what "floats your boat," fear not. Later in the book, Jack Aubrey outsails, outwits, and finally outfights a French frigate in an evenly-matched duel of naval maneuvers.

The Nutmeg of Consolation has all the loud bangs, flying splinters, and acrid smoke you could ask for; but it has so much more. It has a touching reunion with a beloved character we never hoped to see again. It has a duel of swords between a proud ship's surgeon and a boorish army officer. It has a duel of wills between a naval captain in the throes of a mid-life crisis and corrupt and hostile officials on land. It paints a picture of a savage period in the history of Australia that will leave you profoundly shaken. It shows the horrors of plague and the uncertainties of adopting children. It has perilous journeys into the outback, unexpected reflections upon the reading and writing of novels (coming out of the mouths of characters in a novel, mind you), long-delayed reunions, fortunes lost and regained, and an almost-fatal attack by -- ha, ha, I almost told -- but I will say this: I had already written The Magic Quill #126 before I read it (and 10 numbers after it), so don't go around calling me a plagiarist! "Great minds think alike" is my story and I'm sticking to it!

The final and decisive conflict of this story is one that threatens the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin. How this issue can raise more torturous suspense than anything else in the book is beyond my power to explain. Call it a miracle; one might well apply that word to O'Brian's work as a whole. Do, do come and witness this miracle for yourself. When you do, you won't waste time rationalizing it; you will simply believe, and be drawn out of yourself and into a time that now lives so vividly, but in words alone. And when it ends, you may find that "not a moment must be lost" before you set sail in Book 15, The Truelove.

The Truelove
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

The words "outraged platypus" appear on the third page of this book. Personally, I think that would have been a great title. However, for the title of his fifteenth installment in the adventures of British frigate commander Jack Aubrey and his physician-naturalist-intelligence-agent chum Stephen Maturin, Patrick O'Brian chose the name of a ship that doesn't heave into view for another 200 pages and more. Oh, well. We can't have everything.

Jack and Stephen are back aboard the Surprise, the privateer frigate Stephen recently sold to Jack. The nominal captain of the Surprise, as privateer, is faithful old Tom Pullings, but with Jack on board it sails as "His Majesty's Hired Frigate." And it's a frigate on His Majesty's business, too. British trade vessels have been caught in the crossfire between two rival chiefs on a Polynesian island, and Jack's orders are to figure out which side is most likely to swear allegiance to King George and help them rub out the other side.

It's a tricky thing, though. Ordinarily Jack relies on Stephen's advice. But this time, the nature of the mission seems bound to offend Stephen's anti-imperialist feelings. But Jack doesn't have time to agonize over the strain this mission will put on their friendship. The whole ship is being pulled apart and he is the last person to find out why.

Why? Because of a woman. A convict woman, escaped from the New South Wales penal colony, soon married to one of Jack's officers and, nearly as soon, the center of a tangle of romantic rivalry and jealousy that embitters the gunroom [or officer's mess, for those of you tuning in late] and threatens to undermine the discipline of the entire ship. What do you expect to happen when the officers despise each other, but that the foremast hands will choose up sides among them?

Prepare to behold Jack Aubrey's fury unleashed. Prepare for the seductive charms and vaguely chilling air of mystery that surround young Clarissa Oakes. Prepare for some gut-twisting battles, some thrilling naval-intelligence-type discoveries, some charming encounters with the nature and culture of the South Pacific, and loads upon loads of the tension that could, and often did, arise between strong-willed people forced to live for long periods between the decks of a small vessel in the middle of a huge ocean.

The Truelove has, above and beyond all that I have described, a virtually perfect plot that arcs gracefully from the first page to the last, and that nevertheless fits as snugly between The Nutmeg of Consolation and The Wine-Dark Sea as the battens fit into their cleats. (To understand this analogy better, read the book; Jack Aubrey's explanation of "battening down the hatches" is very helpful.) Replete with surprises, reversals, dark forebodings, dashing exploits, wistful partings, and the joy and anxiety of a brand-new father halfway around the globe from his firstborn, this book contains a rich world of experience for you to relish.

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