Sunday, December 7, 2008

Five Book Reviews

The Arkadians
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 11+

This book is a retelling of some ancient Greek myths by a past master of folklore retold, from the Chronicles of Prydain to The Iron Ring. I know that many readers share my high estimate of those works, and so also my high expectations of this book. So I'll say up front that I was somewhat disappointed by it.

In the land of Arkadia - based, I believe, on the southern region of Greece - conflict stirs between the Bear People who rule the land and the conquered people they rule. The Bear People are led by a brutish king who, in turn, is ruled by a pair of crooked priests. When the new king seeks the traditional prophecy of his reign from an oracle known as Woman-Who-Talks-to-Snakes, he gets bad news. The evil counselors take this as an opportunity to increase their power. Their first step will be to purge the land of its wise women and their traditional lore.

Meanwhile, someone else finds himself crosswise to the priests: a palace bean-counter named Lucian, who has uncovered their treachery. Forced to flee the capital city in the company of a talking jackass - or, rather, a poet named Fronto who has been turned into one - Lucian befriends a pretty young prophetess, the hard-riding Horse People, a mischievous goat boy, a professional scapegoat, and a wily sailor. Their quest takes them to the temple of a powerful wise woman, an island where victims are constantly sacrificed to bulls, and other strange places. And finally the circle closes and they find themselves back in the capital, fighting for justice, friendship, and love.

These characters and their adventures will seem familiar to anyone who knows a bit about Greek myths and legends. But the way Alexander turns them topsy-turvy may appeal to some people more than others. Throughout the book, the old tales are retold in a way that alters the whole point of them, often in what I felt was a hostile and glib manner. Frequently, the gender roles are reversed and a story is reshaped to fit a feminist worldview. The result is a peculiar marriage of recycled tradition and original invention. It's an interesting new fantasy world, created by consciously rejecting the tenets of the classical one.

One often sees books spoofing fairy tales in a similar way, but unlike them this book doesn't wink at the reader or send any singals that it should be taken tongue-in-cheek. This is where my disappointment comes in. I was prepared to enjoy the romance of Lucian and Joy-in-the-Dance, their adventures, and their friends. But my enjoyment was lessened by a sense that, all the while, Alexander was passing judgment on all of western culture, a judgment based on moral principles I don't share.

I also thought everyone gave Lucian a rougher time than he deserved. This comes partly of being the hero of the tale, but also partly of a wide streak of male-bashing that runs through the entire book. If I were Lucian and I had to put up with that, I don't know why I would bother being the hero. It would be too discouraging. And, in my view, it canceled out the chemistry between Lucian and Joy-in-the-Dance.

I say all this in full knowledge that my criticisms will probably be selling points for many readers. Women's studies programs should take note of this book; if they're looking for a new mythology in line with their aims, this would be a good place to start. For anyone else, I recommend it merely as an average-quality tale of magic and myth from an author who has done far better.

The Time Thief
UK Title: The Tar Man
by Linda Buckley-Archer
Recommended Ages: 12+

This is the second book in the Gideon Trilogy, also known as the Time Quake Trilogy. In the first book, The Time Travelers (a.k.a. Gideon the Cutpurse), two 21st-century children were accidentally sent back to the England of 1763, where they were befriended and helped by a reformed cutpurse named Gideon Seymour. Their rescue was only partly successful. Kate Dyer returned to her own time, but at the last moment a villain known as the Tar Man traveled with her instead of her friend Peter Schock.

Now a NASA scientist thinks time travel is a really bad idea, and the antigravity machine that made it possible should be destroyed. Kate isn't so ready to give up on Peter. Refusing to leave him stranded in 1763, she helps Peter's father steal the machine and the two go back in time to rescue him. Unfortunately, the settings on the machine have been tampered with. So Kate and Mr. Schock land in 1792, a time when Peter has grown into manhood unrescued.

Peter recognizes them in time to conceal his identity, while trying to help Kate and Mr. Schock get back to their own time and continue searching for the boy he was. The trouble is, the machine was damaged during its latest trip, and the only person in 1792 who has a chance of fixing it is a scholarly nobleman barricaded on his estate in revolution-torn France. On the eve of war between France and Britain, and at the height of the Terror in which the guillotine played such a gruesome role, the three friends must risk great danger if their families are ever to be reunited. Meanwhile, Kate is starting to experience scary side effects of time travel - and she isn't the only one.

Back in the 21st century(!), the Tar Man tries to set up a new criminal empire, aided by a street-smart girl and another boy lost in time. When his plans go pear-shaped, the crooked-necked creep moves to Plan B, which involves more time travel. But even after cheating Peter and Kate out of their long-awaited reunion with their families, the Tar Man proves to be only the second-nastiest villain in the universe.

This middle book ends with a cliffhanger in which the very fabric of reality seems to be in dire jeopardy. But it takes more than a cliffhanger ending to make sure you'll want to read Book Three. What it takes, this book has: lovable characters, urgent suspense, creepiness, humor, a fish-out-of-water adventure in history, a hint of romance, and enough criss-crossing lines of plot and motivation to satisfy anyone craving another Harry Potter adventure.

Miracle on 49th Street
by Mike Lupica
Recommended Ages: 12+

The man who brought us Travel Team and Summer Ball now throws open the deepest, darkest secret of a professional basketball player - a secret so deep and dark that he doesn't know it himself. Yet.

Josh Cameron is the star player of the Boston Celtics, and he has a squeaky-clean image. Along comes a little English girl named Molly Parker, a girl with a natural gift for basketball, a girl whose mother (Josh's one-time girlfriend) recently died of cancer. Molly knows something Josh doesn't know: he's her father. They're both about to find out whether that's going to be a good thing or not.

Josh's first reaction is not to believe Molly's story. As they spend more time together, Molly sees more and more why her mother didn't want her to know her father. His life doesn't really have room for her, or really anyone but himself and the game. His squeaky-clean image may not survive the news that he suddenly has a twelve-year-old daughter. Can all that be changed by one little girl who is desperate to have a family again? That's what Molly wants to know.

Molly quickly grows on Josh Cameron's friends and teammates. She has a foster family and a best friend rooting for her too. But she's not taking any chances. She has an exit strategy in case the father-daughter thing doesn't work out. Josh doesn't know she is about to move to the West Coast with her foster parents, or that she is holding out a hope of staying in Boston with him. Whether he figures it out in time will be the stuff of a Christmas miracle in this parent-child romance with a twist of sports.

New Moon
by Stephenie Meyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Twilight, a small-town Washington police chief's daughter found true love with a teenage vampire, just in time for a bloodsucking fiend to chase her to a deadly confrontation in Phoenix. Now the Twilight Saga continues with a tale of post-breakup depression, extreme sports, and a pack of teen werewolves in the throes of lycanthro-puberty.

When the Cullens - including her beloved Edward - suddenly leave the town of Forks, Bella Swan is left with a gaping hole in her heart. If you read the first book or saw the movie, you might have gotten a vague idea that being separated from Edward might be tough on her. But for Bella, breaking up is really hard to do. She goes through half of her senior year at Forks High like a zombie, speaking only in answer to a direct question, and growing increasingly distant from her school friends and her worried father.

Her outlook begins to brighten when Bella renews her friendship with Jacob Black, a 16-year-old do-it-yourself auto mechanic at the Quileute Reservation outside of town. Jacob carries a torch for Bella, and as she takes more and more comfort from his friendship she is increasingly tempted to make his dreams come true. It wouldn't entirely remove the pain of missing Edward; but since it seems Edward doesn't want her anymore, why shouldn't Jacob have her instead? Just when Bella has almost decided to act on this reasoning, things change. And the first thing that changes, in a big, angry, hairy way, is Jacob.

In the Quileute tribe, werewolves are a defense against vampires. The latest outbreak of lycanthropy seems to have been triggered by the Cullens, though they don't hunt people and - let's face it - they're gone. But it couldn't have come at a better time, since a couple vampires with less scruple about drinking human blood have moved into the area. And especially since one of those werewolves is Victoria, mate of the late James, whose idea of revenge is to sink her teeth into Bella's throat.

The only thing stopping Bella from being next on the menu is the pack of which Jacob is the newest member. Unfortunately, the whole werewolf thing complicates their deepening relationship, leaving Bella with only one other solace from the torment of missing Edward. Yup. Those extreme sports. Stuff that anyone as clumsy as Bella would be crazy to try - and all but suicidal to try alone. Why would she do stuff like that to herself? Here's why: because whenever she is about to do something reckless and stupid, she hears Edward's voice in her head, begging her to stop. It's the next best thing to having him there in person.

Which explains, roughly, why she happens to throw herself off a sea cliff during a raging storm. This extraordinarily foolish act nearly kills her. Worse, by a chain of hard-to-explain accidents, it leads Edward to decide to kill himself. And this is why, quite suddenly, Bella finds herself moving again in the world of vampires, risking her budding relationship with Jacob, and defying all-but-certain death to save her true love, whether he loves her back or not.

What is clear to me after reading this book is that the Twilight Saga is basically a love triangle. Bella is caught between two monsters, both of whom she loves (though not equally), and neither of whom can stand the other. She is caught up in a world of weirdness and terror where anything that has ever been imagined might exist; and if it does exist, she seems bound to meet it. In her own dogged, passionate way, she unintentionally makes herself the pivotal figure in two remarkably detailed, well-developed fantasy worlds, while continuing to stir up her share of trouble in the everyday world.

Bella's observations of Jacob and Edward continually prompt readers to imagine two very different flavors of physically perfect, spiritually flawed romantic leading men. Meanwhile, salivating readers - especially teen girls - will scarcely notice that most of the suspense and action are concentrated in a few chapters, while the majority of the book takes place inside Bella's complex and tortured mind. This is perhaps the cleverest thing Stephenie Meyer has achieved in writing this long, inwardly focused, mostly slow-paced, yet compulsively page-turning book. Once you start it, you will finish it; and once you finish it, you will want to start the next book in the series, Eclipse.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard
by J. K. Rowling
Recommended Ages: 9+

We first heard about this book in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when the plot turned on the Tale of the Three Brothers. Then we might have heard that J. K. Rowling had auctioned off her handwritten and illustrated manuscript of this book for charity. Now, at last, it has come into the hands of Harry Potter fans. Slender and quickly devoured as it is, it is a welcome addition to the lore of Harry's magical world, joining his seven-book saga and the two whimsical Hogwarts School Books previously published.

I am loath to say much about the five fairy tales contained in this book, except that they are crafted to fit the magical setting of the Harry Potter books. This is to say, they are examples of the type of fairy tale that magical parents might tell to magical children - tales in which magic is as ordinary as umbrellas and tea; tales illustrating the principle that magic can sometimes cause more problems than it solves.

The book says that Hermione Granger translated the tales from the ancient runes. It also includes comments on each tale, left behind by the late Albus Dumbledore, pointing up significant literary themes illustrated by each fable. These themes are themselves important issues in the "canonical" Harry Potter books. What Dumbledore has to say about each tale (and his comments are often longer than the tale itself) adds to our understanding of what J. K. R.'s novels were about, and of why they turned out as they did.

I enjoyed the Dumbledore bits most of all. I suppose, though, this book could be read for the fairy tales alone. As fairy tales they are a little strange, but they work. Rowling seems to have a gift for this type of tale, even when writing it merely as background to a larger work. She gives us five pieces of fabricated folklore, covering all kinds of subject matter from the haunting wisdom of "The Tale of Two Brothers" to the grim horror of "The Warlock's Hairy Heart." There is a bit of romance, a bit of a morality tale, and a bit of silly mischief; and I'll bet you can guess which of these bits is represented by "Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump." But all of them have a serious side, as you will see as you read further.

My only complaint is that there isn't more. I enjoyed this book too much for it to be over so quickly. May J. K. Rowling's creative endeavors continue to grow! And may this appetizer stimulate hungry readers to sample more of the wide range of luscious books that await us!

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