Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Four Book Reviews

Arabel and Mortimer
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Ages: 8+

Fans of Roald Dahl and Astrid Lindgren will love this book, part of a series about little Arabel Jones of "Rumbury Town, London N.W. 3½" and her pet raven Mortimer. Illustrated by the same Quentin Blake who so memorably decorated such books as The BFG and Danny the Champion of the World, and written by the same author who gave us The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Cockatrice Boys, it combines laugh-aloud scenes of mischief and mayhem with touches of whimsical irony and rib-tickling silliness.

Arabel and the family raven get up to some far-flung adventures, considering that she is the daughter of an easy-going cab driver and a slightly daffy housewife. Mr. Jones likes his football (that's soccer to you) and Mrs. Jones has an endearing way of muddling up her words. They both seem heroically tolerant of Arabel's feathered friend, who will swallow anything not bolted down and whose antics would be mortifying to most real-life parents. Part of what makes this fantasy so adorable is the way the Jones family takes Mortimer in stride.

In the three short stories (novellas?) included in this book, Arabel and Mortimer rescue a lost gem, run amuck on a cruise ship, save a zooful of zebras and camels from animal thieves, and put their special stamp on the unearthing of King Arthur's round table and the sword Excalibur. Mortimer samples the flavor of a table-tennis set, a bowler hat, and a sewing machine. He tests whether a riding lawnmower can fly, whether a grand piano can float, and whether a giraffe can climb a spiral staircase. And in spite of all his mischief, he and Arabel make lots of friends. Won't you be one of them?

I haven't yet read Arabel's Raven, the first book in this series. Evidently it is a series you can join at any point. I'm not sure how many different stories are in it, since they seem to have been published separately and collected in various ways. But I do recommend this charming series of humorous child-and-animal adventures to anyone who senses the comic potential of doughnuts, nose organs, lavender paint, and a bird that often mutters, "Nevermore!"

The Tale of Despereaux
by Kate DiCamillo
Recommended Ages: 9+

This Newbery-Medal-winning book by the author of Because of Winn-Dixie weaves together the story of a servant girl who wants to be a princess, a rat who wants to live in the light, and a mouse who wants to be a knight.

Those of you who, like me, read the book after seeing the delightful movie based on it may be surprised to discover how many memorable bits in the movie aren't in the book. The original story is much simpler and more direct. Yet for all its spareness, it packs a big message. It bears witness that, even in the world of "once upon a time," the route to "happily ever after" is fraught with pain, trouble, and disappointment. It shows the cost of not conforming, the harm that can result when a broken heart heals wrong, the rewards of courage and love, the importance of honor, and the power of forgiveness. Best of all, it has a character who says: "Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark."

Despereaux is an unusual mouse in many ways. Smaller than normal, born with his eyes open, interested in things other than scurrying and nibbling, he soon falls in love with a pretty princess and comes to fancy himself her champion. She needs a champion, too, when a vengeful rat and an envious serving wench target the Princess Pea in a plot involving the darkest dungeon in the kingdom. To save her, one very tiny mouse will have to accomplish some amazingly big things.

It's a gentle, lovely story in which each short chapter ends with the narrator turning toward the reader and looking him or her straight in the eye. DiCamillo has a way of explaining words and concepts that might remind one of Lemony Snicket, only without the latter's pedantic mannerisms. The book leaves more to the imagination than the film does, but it also rewards the imagination with a word-painting full of darkness and light, achieving the effect of great detail through an economy of means. It's the verbal equivalent of the painting technique after which one of the characters is named. It draws on all the senses. It speaks in the tones of a kindly adult telling a story out loud to a child. And it begs to be read over a bowl of savory soup.

Gods of Manhattan
by Scott Mebus
Recommended Ages: 12+

Thirteen-year-old Rory Hennessy is a level-headed boy. He has an eye for the plain, unvarnished truth. This is why he hates watching stage magic; he can always spot how a trick was done. Always, that is, until his sister Bridget's ninth birthday party, when a conjurer named Hex pulls off the impossible. Suddenly Rory's entire world is shaken. Soon he begins to spot other impossible things, like a cockroach rider waving hello from a rat's back. Within days, the familiar and mundane streets of New York are transformed into a wonderland in which ghostly pirate ships patrol the river, animals engage in kung fu fighting, and members of the extinct Munsee tribe stalk the paths of Central Park.

Rory soon discovers that he is a rare type of person known as a Light. He sees what really is, and he can enable other people to see it too. But this talent puts him in great danger. Someone has seen to it that most Lights disappear by age four. Only the fact that, somehow or other, Rory has managed to block out his talent has kept him alive until now. But the feral, childlike Strangers are after him now. And one of the immortal gods of Manhattan -- spirits from its past like Alexander Hamilton and Walt Whitman -- is after Rory's head, aided by an assassin wielding a unique knife that can even kill gods.

That doesn't even begin to describe the danger Rory is in. All he has to defend himself are a handful of the immortal children of the gods, known as the Rattle Watch; a clan of rat-riding warrior roaches; and a mysterious magician with questionable motives, served by a papier-mâché boy. I'm not sure whether to count one little girl who fancies herself "Malibu Death Barbie" as an asset in Rory's favor. For, all too soon, his adventure becomes all about saving Bridget.

Meanwhile, we readers are treated to a rapid, free course in the history of New York City. We meet many characters from its variegated history. We tag along on wild, and often scary, excursions into the past, where Rory and friends are threatened by gangsters, British troops, an albino alligator, and everything in between. A quest to right a 150-year-old wrong and restore the balance of Manhattan's spirit world veers to a supernatural bank heist, a spiritual journey, a surprise plot twist, the unveiling of a traitor, and a deadly trap. And the door remains open for more adventures in the world of Mannahatta, where gods like Peter Stuyvesant and Zelda Fitzgerald preside over such areas as nostalgia, guilt, trends, excess, wit, shoplifting, and street construction. The chronicles of Mannahatta continue in at least a second book, titled Spirits in the Park.

by Delia Sherman
Recommended Ages: 10+

This tale was written to disprove a theory, voiced by another fantasy author, that fairies never live in big cities. Delia Sherman grew up in New York City, and she knows as well as anyone who has ever visited the Big Apple that it is a magical place. If anything, it has more fairy folk per square mile than the average, in proportion to its higher population density. And since the mortals who dwell in the "New York Outside" (that's our world) come from all over the world, the fairy realm known as "New York Between" is similarly cosmopolitan. Beautiful or ugly, naughty or nice, there are so many varieties of Folk in the city that you'll really need the glossary at the end of the book.

Sherman developed this idea through several short stories before bringing it to bear on the novel. It's really a powerful idea, too: more convincing than the Mannahatta of Scott Mebus's Gods of Manhattan, more family-friendly (and less tongue-in-cheek) than Shanna Swendson's Enchanted, Inc., it forms the basis of a unique, urban fairy tale that will please folklore fans of all ages. Although the idea of magic existing in New York City isn't unique in and of itself, I know of no other author who has transplanted such a melting pot of "old country" magic onto New World soil, keeping its original character while adapting it successfully to its new home.

In the New York Between, Manhattan has been divided up between "Geniuses": powerful fairies who control particular areas. For example, our heroine, a mortal changeling named Neef, has grown up under the protection of the Genius of Central Park, also known as the Green Lady. In her quest, she meets other Geniuses, including the Mermaid Queen of New York Harbor, the Producer of Broadway, and the Dragon of Wall Street. She also meets her double, a fairy changeling who was swapped with Neef as a small child and raised by Neef's mortal parents.

Together, Neef and Changeling undertake three seemingly impossible tasks in order to get back into the Green Lady's good books and restore everything to the way it should be. It starts when Neef breaks a magical rule she didn't know about. Faced with a choice between being banished from the Park and being eaten by the Wild Hunt, she chooses a third option and goes on a quest. She mingles with selkie harbor cops, vampire actors, stockbroker dwarves and kobolds, the odd fictional character, and a whole roomful of bogeymen. She crosses paths with spirits from Asian, European, and uniquely American folklore, surviving by sheer chutzpah and the surprising usefulness of her fairy double. And she provides an entertainment full of laughs, changes of scenery, and familiar fairy-tale beings and plot devices transformed in surprising ways. New York is transformed, too. You may never look at it the same way again.

For more information on this talented and award-winning author, visit her website. Several of her stories have been published in anthologies, including The Faery Reel, The Green Man, and The Coyote Road. Some of her other novels are Through a Brazen Mirror and The Porcelain Dove. And I have been assured that she is writing a sequel to Changeling. I'll be questing for it!

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