Saturday, November 26, 2011

Basye, Hardy, McCaughrean, Miéville, Stiefvater

Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck
by Dale E. Basye
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the first book of this series, we learned that Heck is "where the bad kids go." So when teen felon Marlo Fauster lands there after being buried in a marshmallow lava flow, it's hard to be surprised. The surprise is that her nerdy but virtuous brother Milton comes along for the ride, darned for eternity. Now the plot has moved on. Milton has found his way back to the land of the living, but he isn't adjusting well to being Resurrection Boy. People think he's a freak and either fear or ridicule him, sometimes both at once. He keeps having spiritual brown-outs, a side effect of crossing over and back again. He inadvertently sends the school bully to his eternal reward, and now a strange girl from a kooky religious cult is after him.

Meanwhile, back in the junior underworld, Marlo has matriculated into the Second Circle of Heck, where kids study such subjects as necroeconomics while being tormented by desire for material possessions. It's a very commercialized sector of the afterlife, with tantalizing commercial breaks promoting the fashion boutiques and outlet stores of Mallvana. Egged on by Rapacia's Vice Principal of Darkness—a giant tin Easter bunny named the Grabbit, whose hollow voice speaks in diabolically cute limericks—Marlo begins to plan the heist of all eternity: a diamond-snatching caper that could wreck the economy of the afterlife... and that's the best-case scenario.

By the end, the two siblings are together again, fighting spork-wielding demons, a cross-dressing bully, crowds of shoppers, and the type of bureaucrats who can really take the fun out of being dead. And all that's besides a parade of fiendish puns, a rogue's gallery of hilariously maladjusted characters, and an ingenious plot to destroy everything, poof! But if you're wondering whether the Fauster siblings make it out of the underworld, you'll have to get the next book in the series. Rumor has it there will eventually be nine of them, corresponding to the nine circles of aitch-ee-double-toothpicks popularized by Dante in The Divine Comedy. At this writing there are only five Circles of Heck, the titles following this installment being Blimpo, Fibble, and Snivel.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 14+

I continue to commute about ten hours a week, and listening to audio books on my car's CD player remains the best way of filling all that mentally wasted time with something that enriches my inner life. Plus, as I learned when I listened to an unabridged reading of War and Peace, it is also a great way to fill the gaps in my reading with books that I really should experience before I die, but might never do so at the rate things are going. Somehow I decided that the next author I needed to broach was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), an English writer who devoted most of his career to poetry, but who is now mainly remembered for his novels set in the fictitious British county of Wessex. His best-known titles, to judge by whether I had heard of them, include Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure. Together with the last of these, Tess of the d'Urbervilles stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy and harsh criticism that spurred Hardy to turn away from fiction at an early stage in his career. The student of English literature must regard this decision as a tragedy similar to, say, the music world's loss when Sibelius quit composing with thirty years left on his meter.

But where would be the fun of studying Brit Lit without sad stories like these? Suicides, drownings, early deaths in the trenches of the Great War, the toll of consumption upon all manner of promising young talent... It's enough to give the reading of great books an extra kick of morbid fascination. And even though Hardy outlived his doomed heroine by some 37 years, this particular book is enlivened by the scandal and (for faithful Christians) intellectual challenge that results from its attacks on Christian morals and beliefs. Among its ironies, however, is the fact that Hardy never openly reveals the syllogisms by which male protagonist Angel Clare apparently knocks Christian dogma into a cocked hat; he leaves them to the imagination, or perhaps to the research of people interested in the thought of that era.

Another irony is that, while the heroine's predicament tears the "conventional morality" of the Victorian era to bloody shreds, the most doctrinaire believers in it (Clare's parents) happen to be paragons of compassion and forgiveness; and as the narrator points out, the crucial point on which the whole tragedy turns is the point when Tess fails in her resolve to appeal to Parson and Mrs. Clare, fails to trust them to be exactly the open-hearted saints they would have been to her.

Tess's predicament stems from a youthful indiscretion, in which her innate purity and virtue were tested past the breaking point by an amoral seducer named Alec d'Urberville. In spite of what you might guess from the title, she never marries him, though she bears a child who does not live long. After living quietly for a few years, Tess tries to start over in life with the sovereign resolution to avoid entanglements with men, but soon after going to work on a dairy farm she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a parson's son whose freethinking tendencies have led him to seek a career in farming rather than the church. Ever conscious that her past could blight their future together, Tess resists Angel's proposal of marriage as long as she can, then delays the wedding day while dithering over whether or how to tell him her whole history.

It finally doesn't come out at all until their wedding night; and when Clare recoils from her, the author makes it clear that the faithful one of the couple is the wife who suffers while Clare looks for answers in Brazil. By the time he realizes that he is the one who has done wrong between them and rushes back to England to reunite with his wife, the thin line between "happily ever after" and unavoidable tragedy has already been crossed. Exactly what shape that tragedy will take, and how much of an emotional wreck it will leave you, will only become clearly apparent in the superbly paced final pages of the book.

I listened to this book as read by the amazing Anna Bentick, who brought a distinctive intonation and regional dialect to each and every character, male and female. Her voice, and Hardy's words, brought vividly to life a tragedy that at times reminded me of folk tales and myths, at others of lyric opera (I even idly considered sketching an outline of a libretto for one). And though my one-sentence review of this book will henceforth be that "I have been emotionally assaulted and battered by Thomas Hardy," I can't quite shake the idea that the next audio book I borrow from the library will be something by the same author.

Peter Pan in Scarlet
by Geraldine McCaughrean
Recommended Ages: 8+/-

Confession time: In my review of J. M. Barrie's book Peter Pan and Wendy, I got a few chronological details wrong. First of all, the character of "Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" appeared first in a 1902 novel for adults (in a passage later excerpted and published as a standalone book called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens), then in a 1904 play under the title set off in quotes above, and finally in the book I reviewed, published in 1911 and also titled (in its various editions) Peter and Wendy and, simply, Peter Pan. What happened in 1906 (the year referenced in my previous review) was that Mr. Barrie donated the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. And so it was in 2005, in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of that gift, that GOSH announced a search for the author to write the first-ever "authorized sequel" to Peter Pan.

It's not as if there hadn't already been oodles of adaptations, spinoffs, and sequels, including a famous stage musical (which has been filmed for television several times), a bunch of animated films, a Spielberg movie, and a whole series of prequel novels by American writers Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (starting with 2004's Peter and the Starcatchers). But even while debate continues as to whether the copyright on Peter Pan has expired, there's something to be said for being chosen, authorized, and published by the trustees of the charity to which Barrie dedicated the book.

On the strength of her story outline and a sample chapter, Geraldine McCaughrean won that honor. And though the Barry-Pearson franchise is more vibrantly packaged and a roaring success, it seemed right that I should read this sequel first. Now that I have done it, I have doubts about the brainparts—not, mind you, of the Great Ormond Street trustees who entrusted their centennial sequel to McCaughrean, nor of the author herself—rather, doubts about the mental wellness of the reviewers who (according to my research, notably on Wiki) gave her book a "mixed but generally positive" critical reception. That's just absurd. What McCaughrean wrote is at least the equal of the original Peter Pan. In all likelihood, any critic who doesn't think so has let his memory of Barrie's actual work become colored by the spectacles of stage, screen, and high-gloss publishing that have accumulated on it like layers of tinted transparency, where each successive incarnation of Peter Pan must outdo all before it in blockbuster appeal—whereas this book is simply a lovely, charming, delightful children's book, clothed in whimsical drawings by Scott M. Fischer and a beautiful cover painting by Tony DiTerlizzi, exactly in the spirit of the 1911 book on which it builds.

Such a feat must have come natural to Geraldine McCaughrean (pronounced like "McCorkran"), author of dozens of books in which Bible stories, legends, myths, and historical events are retold and/or fictionalized for younger readers. The winner of a Carnegie Medal, three Whitbread Children's Book Awards, a Michael L. Printz Award, and numerous other honors, McCaughrean will probably be best remembered by future generations for her singular contribution to the Peter Pan mythos. For it is an original tale that reunites nearly all of the original characters in a way that combines lighthearted whimsy with touching pathos in the same elusive, magical proportions that made the first Peter Pan unforgettable.

The opening of the book finds the Lost Boys and Wendy all grown up, sometime after World War I, raising their own kids and moving on with their lives after having been adopted and educated by the kindly Darling family. But into their adulthood intrudes a series of thrilling dreams, from which they wake with objects from Neverland in their beds: cutlasses, alarm clocks, and the like. Getting together, they discuss what this may mean. It seems that something terrible has happened back in Neverland: Time has begun to pass where it ought to stand still. So, by means too wonderful for me to spoil here, they return to childhood and fly back to see what's up with Peter, the forest, the lagoon, and whatnot. While they find Peter very much the same as ever, everything else in Neverland has changed. Summer has moved on to autumn. Bones of mermaids and a crocodile litter the seashore. And a mysterious "ravelling man" has, with his menagerie of fierce beasts, somehow taken up residence in Peter's magical neighborhood.

Even worse disasters lie ahead, testing the survival of Neverland, the friendship of the boys, and the eternal youth of Peter. It is a swashbuckling adventure that combines lovable nonsense with scary suspense, in which touches of silly humor to make children giggle alternate with splashes of poetic brilliance to make grownups gasp with wonder. And finally the story wraps up in a way that leaves the ground both changed and open to another sequel. If GOSH doesn't mean to wait another hundred years for the next "authorized sequel," they couldn't do better than to give that assignment to McCaughrean too.

Un Lun Dun
by China Miéville
Recommended Ages: 12+

Weird things have started happening to London schoolgirls Zanna and Deeba. Well, they're happening to Zanna really; Deeba is only concerned because they are best friends. First there was a cloud that looked like Zanna. Then something weird came in the mail. Now animals are bowing to her, strangers are approaching her as though she were a celebrity and not just an ordinary girl. And then things start to get really serious. The word "Shwazzy" has been whispered concerning Zanna—possibly connected to a similar-sounding French word that means "chosen." She has started to show signs of strange power. Something dangerous seems to be after her. And then comes the night when a broken umbrella crawls out of a neighbor's garbage and, moving all by itself, appears to look in at Zanna's bedroom window. The two girls start to follow the umbrella as it makes its retreat, and before they catch up to it, they find their way into an alternate London—UnLondon, by name—the place where obsolete people and things go when our dimension no longer has room for them.

Little by little, Zanna is welcomed as a long-awaited hero whose exploits will save UnLondon in a war to come soon. But even with a talking book filled with prophecies about her and all kinds of signs proclaiming her the Shwazzy, Zanna proves unequal to her first encounter with the enemy: the dark, hungry intelligence known, for surprisingly straightforward reasons, as the Smog. Since air quality standards were passed in the U.K., London's heavy and sometimes deadly smog has become a thing of the past. Which, don't you know, makes it a very current thing in UnLondon, where enough of it has accumulated, with who-knows-what chemical ingredients, to form a conscious mind bent on burning, inhaling, and absorbing the knowledge in everyone and everything, everywhere. Only the Shwazzy can stop it, says the Book; but even the Book is at a loss when Zanna is defeated, and nearly dies, in her first battle against the Smog.

To Deeba's relief, the girls go back to their own London, and a ruse to draw the Smog's evil tendrils out of Zanna's lungs works, saving the Shwazzy to fight another day. Only... all her memories of UnLondon seem to have gone out with the smoke in her lungs. Deeba realizes that only she knows about that other world, and that she can't talk about it with anybody—especially Zanna. And then Deeba discovers that UnLondon is in more trouble than anybody suspected, and somebody has to go back. Who else is there but Deeba herself?

And so saving UnLondon from the fiendish plans of the Smog and its creatures becomes a quest for the Un-Chosen One. And when none of the authorities in UnLondon will believe what she has found out about the Smog and his allies, Deeba has to go it alone, on the run from friend and foe alike. With a no-nonsense attitude united to a warm and gentle heart, Deeba wins over a strange and unexpected group of companions, and follows a totally unconventional strategy—even by the standards of a city built on weirdness and whimsy. It is, after all, a city with flying buses, ghosts, giant insects, words come to life, a man with a caged bird for a head, and sun with a hole in its center, like a doughnut.

It has a Gothic church haunted by black windows (eight wooden legs and a snapping sash window). It has a band of stealth fighters disguised as trash cans (known locally as binja). It has a boy who can pass through walls, a bus conductor who can also conduct electricity, a man who wears clothing made out of books, and a neighborhood where everybody lives on the rooftops (though, to be on the safe side, the buildings are only a few inches tall). These are only a sample of the wonderful oddities Deeba finds in UnLondon, but oddest of all... she is the one the Smog fears most.

I won't spoil this remarkable and exciting book any further. It is enough to know that it holds a distinguished place among the growing band of books set in "other Londons," and such places. British author China Miéville, whose image inside the back flap of this book is almost the exact opposite of what his name led me to expect, considers himself a writer of "weird fiction," or the "New Weird" (as distinguished from the "Old Weird" of Lovecraft, Bierce, and the like). Many of his books have won awards, including a Hugo Award, two Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and a World Fantasy Award. Other acclaimed titles by China Tom Miéville include The Scar, King Rat, The City & the City, and Embassytown.

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie
by Maggie Stiefvater
Recommended Ages: 14+

Having survived the summer of faerie-born peril depicted in Lament, best friends James and Dee begin a new school year at a special prep school for musically gifted kids. On some level they know, even before this sequel begins, that Thornking Ash has another reason to exist: a mission to protect young people with a sensitivity to magic; to prevent them from being snatched by the Fair Folk—who, as James and Dee know too well, don't play fair at all.

But no one—not even an English prof who used to be the Faerie Queen's consort—is prepared for the amount of danger these two, and others, are in the year James and Dee enter Thornking Ash. As a peerless bagpiper, James can hardly find a teacher to develop his skill, let alone a place to fit in. And for her own mysterious reasons, Dee is even more socially and emotionally cut off, even from the boy who loves her. Both of these problems, together with Dee's terrifying talent for drawing wild spirits to her, expose them and everyone on campus to a level of danger no one living has seen before.

For one, James has become the menu choice of a deadly muse-spirit called the leanan sidhe. Nuala's standard procedure is to offer a handsome young artist a bright, hot, fast-burning blast of creative energy, followed (by way of exchange) by an early death as she drains the life right out of him. But somehow, things are different with James. Maybe it's the fact that he has already pulled through a nearly fatal encounter with faeries and knows well enough to say No. Or maybe it's just plain love. Nuala finds herself weakening, starving herself for this boy. This could be a disaster, even for a being who must burn to ashes and be reborn every sixteen years, and who has a date with fire this very Halloween.

Meanwhile, something fishy is going on with Dee, but she isn't talking about it to anybody, especially James. It puts a real strain on their lifelong friendship, and it's one more thing for him to worry about. Whatever is going on, the new Faerie Queen seems to be planning something really bitchy for Halloween, and probably bloody into the bargain. And the Lord of the Dead has been singing at dusk nearly every night as autumn progresses, heard not only by James and Dee but by others as well. James's roommate Paul says he hears a list of people who are going to die soon, and all their names are on it. And when James finds out what he has to do to save both Nuala and Dee on the night all Faerie breaks loose, it isn't hard for him to believe what Paul says.

Here is another quick, intense novel of music, magic, teen romance, and all the reasons we should know better than to wish we could see fairies. They're dangerous, as you can learn from this book's spin on Celtic folk tales. It's a book that answers the question that might niggle at the back of your brain after you read Lament: How can someone with Dee's powers ever be safe from the deadly Fair Folk? Or maybe the question was: How could her Aunt Delia get away with her disgusting betrayal? Both of these questions, and others you haven't even thought of asking, will be answered amid this book's steadily building suspense and the emotional mangle of its climax.

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