Monday, July 30, 2012

Beddor Curley England Englehart Wilson

The Looking Glass Wars
by Frank Beddor
Recommended Ages: 13+

The first time I started to read this book, I didn't get past the prologue. What turned me off wasn't the fact that it built on the fantasy world created by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) in his classic Alice in Wonderland. I'm all for "further tales" of already-established, richly imagined fantasy worlds. I'm not even upset by the fact that the author put a fresh twist on Carroll's Wonderland. I expect some degree of originality, even to the extent of totally reimagining the concept. Where I think Frank Beddor crossed the line was in casting Dodgson as a dissembling fool, if not indeed a creep, who betrayed Alice's confidences, bowdlerized her true reminiscences, and got Wonderland all wrong. It is, after all, his (Dodgson's) creation, and we owe him so much for it. And frankly, I was offended by Beddor's central conceit that Wonderland, as we know and love it, was a deliberate and cynical distortion of something wilder and better.

I doubt I would have taken umbrage at this idea had the wonderland in question been any other than the Wonderland. The idea could have been (and, I later decided after finally finishing the book, really was) most compelling in its way; but by changing it to a fictional author's fantasy classic, Beddor could have avoided cutting the throat of a sacred cow right on Page One. Even a thinly veiled disguise might have sufficed. But borrowing the fruit of another author's imagination, only to attack him personally along with the rightness of what he wrote, is beyond bad manners. It is Not Done.

Nevertheless, I gave this book a second chance when an audiobook edition of it practically fell into my hands. In the daily discomfort of my car, one hour going to work and another coming home, I was a captive audience. And in fairness to Beddor's storytelling, once I got past the prologue (which ticked me off again), I found his take on the tale quite compelling. You see, Alice doesn't really get to Wonderland by falling down a rabbit's hole. She is actually a princess of Wonderland by birth, she has power as limitless as her own fertile imagination, and her name is Alyss. She only ends up in England when her evil Aunt Redd escapes from exile, murders her parents, and turns the happy queendom into a reign of terror.

Traveling through the lake of tears, which bridges the gap between our world and Wonderland, Alyss finds herself in Victorian England. She ekes out a living as a street urchin while her powers of imagination last. Then she goes to an orphanage and, thanks to her beauty, is lucky enough to be adopted by an Oxford don and his prim wife. The Liddell family (sounds like "little") have a hard time of it at first, but after Alyss (now Alice) recovers from the appalling results of Mr. Dodgson's interest in her, they finally manage to iron all the imagination out of her. She becomes such a charming young lady that a bona fide prince asks for her hand in marriage.

But all this time, back in Wonderland, a resistance movement has been fighting, and slowly losing, a civil war with the forces of Her Imperial Viciousness, Queen Redd. Though they don't know their princess survived, they call themselves the Alyssians. And just when Alice/Alyss is on the point of tying the knot with Prince Leopold, she gets pulled back into the conflict and, in a whirlwind of discoveries and reunions, must decide whether she will challenge Redd for the throne. And whether she can.

Space does not permit me to list even a fraction of the strange and exciting people and things Alyss and her Wonderlanders see and do. There's traveling through the network of mirrors. There's the shape-shifting assassin with nine lives. There's the general who, when stressed, splits into two identical people (and sometimes splits again). There's Hatter Madigan, head of an order of spies whimsically known as the Millinery, whose cloak and top-hat conceal whirring blades and razor-sharp boomerangs. There's Bibwitt Hare, an albino with huge sensitive ears. And there's a boy whose friendship represents all that matters to Alyss, and whose anger threatens it.

Far faster-paced and action-oriented than Carroll's original tale, this fantasy entertainment offers attractions for an older set of readers. It has romnace, horror, a bit of gore, a touch of social criticism (or, at least, a more Dickensian view of the 19th century), some technological upgrades to Carroll's card soldiers which make them considerably fiercer, and a story of tragedy and redemption. It invites the reader to contemplate the power of imagination and the responsibility that comes with it. With the reservations I have already stated, it could be the beginning of a new classic fantasy saga. And it already has a sequel: Seeing Redd.

The Dark
by Marianne Curley
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this second book of the "Guardians of Time" trilogy, the villainous Marduke has returned from the dead, even more twisted and deformed than before. The evil immortal Lathenia, goddess of chaos, and her Order (of Disorder) continue to meddle with history in the hope of changing the future into an age of misrule.

In the meantime, the Guard that tirelessly works to frustrate her plans faces frustrations of its own. As Lathenia racks up one timeline-altering victory after another, the prophecy that the Guard will defeat her begins to change in her favor. Ethan, a gifted young guardsman who just earned his wings, is preoccupied by a concern that his troubled mother may attempt suicide. Matt, Ethan's apprentice and supposedly destined leader of the Guard, has yet to come into his powers and grows more frustrated and uncertain each day. And Matt's sister Isabel, whose healing power and psychic visions make her critically important to the Guard, will risk the wrath of an immortal being to search the underworld for her soulmate Arkarian, who has been taken prisoner by the forces of chaos.

More seriously, Isabel will risk her life and the lives of Ethan and Matt, who go with her into a realm of horror from which they might not return. Without them, the Guard will lose more and more ground to the Order in their battle over time. And what do they have working for them? Besides Isabel's healing powers, they have Ethan's ability to create totally convincing illusions, such as a boat you can actually row across a river; the advice of a winged, pig-snouted, implike creature who has offered them his dubious loyalty; the desperation of a ghostly little girl to get in touch with her loved ones; the defection of one of Lathenia's minions, who also turns out to be a surprise traitor to the good guys (though not a very big surprise); and secrets and powers that Matt and Arkarian don't even know they have—while the latter, gravely wounded, is running out of time.

What lifts this series above the ho-hum teen-angst-laden fantasy adventure? To be sure, it offers plenty in the angsty teen department, including a creeping suspicion that a whole bunch of characters will be paired up as "soul mates." But it also has some spectacular images and weird hazards, such as a gigantic eight-sided pyramid of colored glass, a magical tunnel that forces you to face your deepest secret, and a lake of frozen acid that bursts into flame everywhere you step on it. Also there are time-diving expeditions into medieval France and ancient Rome, and a high school history classroom used as a litmus test to measure how the war to protect the timeline is going. (Hint: As the dress code goes, so goes civilization.) It's not high literature. It's not even high fantasy. But it may give teen bookworms a bit more than the average showcase for the words "I would have ruled the world if it hadn't been for you meddling kids!" The other two books in Australian author Curley's popular trilogy are The Named and The Key.

Favorite Operas by Italian and French Composers
by Paul England
Recommended Ages: 12+

This book reproduces a portion of the 1929 book Fifty Favorite Operas, the other part of which was reprinted as Favorite Operas by German and Russian Composers. And although it is no more visually attractive or attuned to contemporary culture than the average facsimile edition of a pre-World-War-II book about opera, I cannot recommended it highly enough. In fact, reading this book filled my head with thrilling ideas about how it could be updated, or at least expanded to include operas that have emerged as popular favorites and revered art-works since 1929. Or maybe a children's edition could be published, featuring pictures from great productions, sound samples of musical highlights, and a more storybook-like synopsis.

But for now, all that is small potatoes. As it stands, this is the book you have always needed in order to understand opera—even if you were afraid to start experiencing it because of all the barriers of technical, historical, and linguistic knowledge you must first surmount. This is the book that makes 29 operatic masterpieces make sense to a musical layman, with just enough non-technical description to help you understand why they are masterpieces, how to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and what to look for in a great performance. This is the book that demystifies a cultural tradition that, for far too many people, has been enshrined in a remote realm of impenetrable mystery; that explains the stories and the characters in dramas and comedies that always used to come across as so much foreign caterwauling; that could make a form of entertainment that is now 400 years old come alive in your imagination as movingly, as romantically, as hilariously, and at times as horrifyingly as what you experience in the film and broadcast media of today—with the added attraction of a piece of musical genius as long as a regulation baseball game. This is the book that could prevent your first night at the opera from being confusing, agonizing, and your last; that could make it, rather, the beginning of a lifetime of pleasure that will fill your heart and stimulate your brain. In short, this is the book you were afraid did not exist (especially if you were in danger of having to go to an opera at some point); or that, if it did exist, would be too hard to read. But it does, and it isn't, and here it is!

Music critic Paul England is not always on target. To start with, some of the synopses aren't even by him. At times (particularly when writing on Bellini and Donizetti), he may seem to judge an opera unfairly, his hindsight colored by the later phenomena of Verdi and Wagner. And his opinion, like anyone's, is open to debate. After more than 80 years, it is very likely that some of the weaknesses he finds in the works of great composers like Verdi and Puccini are now accepted as beauty spots on their own terms. Perhaps some works that England dismisses as being of light interest, unlikely to survive in the repertoire, still remain perennial favorites, while others are staging a comeback. Perhaps England was too optimistic about an opera's chances for remaining a hot item, such the works by Meyerbeer and Charpentier represented in this book. But often, his assessment of an opera's greatness seems to steal the words out of the pen of today's program-notes writers. Or to put it the right way around, maybe they're stealing from him.

I am grateful to Paul England for crystallizing some of my own thoughts, and clarifying others, on such opera favorites as The Barber of Seville (Rossini), Rigoletto (Verdi), Carmen (Bizet), and La bohème (Puccini), among others. Thanks to recordings, I have heard many of the operas discussed in this book, in some cases many times over. Even so, I think I will appreciate them better the next time I hear them; and I plan to keep this book as a handy reference when a night at the theater beckons, or even a night by the hi-fi. I also look forward to reading what England and his contributors have to say about Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner in the volume on German and Russian composers. Bottom line: GET THIS BOOK, and claim your share in the fabulous cultural wealth in which opera is among the brightest jewels.

The Point Man
by Steve Englehart
Recommended Ages: 15+

The cover art of this book may lead one to expect a whimsical, comic-bookish fantasy in which a Vietnam war veteran turned disc jockey discovers a magical talent appropriate to someone who always volunteered to be "point man"—wherever he points his finger, magic happens. This mind trick is aided by the fact that author Englehart also wrote—besides a sequel to this book titled The Long Man—several well-received graphic novels, including the serial that inspired Tim Burton's movie Batman. A reader, like me, may make it all the way through the book before accepting the disappointing reality that the book's hero Max August (or, as he styles himself on the radio, Barnaby Wilde) never actually points his finger and shoots magic. Instead, he merely saves the free world from a Communist shaman's plot to subject it to the powers of Unbeing at the stroke of New Year 1981, San Francisco time.

Max's adventure isn't very lighthearted or whimsical, either. In fact, it is very grown-up, and may call for both an adult and an occult content advisory. Max starts to realize that he is in the middle of something big, hairy, and supernatural when he wakes up after a wild night of passion with his new boss, only to be attacked by an indoor storm cloud filled with eyes. Then a homicidal maniac takes a shot at him through the window of his studio. When he realizes that his boss/lover has also stolen an heirloom sculpture of a lion from his living room, Max starts to get really angry. He takes out some of his anger on a pop diva who has dropped by his studio for an on-air interview. But this proves to be a turning point, for Valerie Drake's mysterious agent is actually a 500-year-old wizard named Cornelius Agrippa.

Corny tries to prepare Max to understand what is going on. But it isn't until lightning fries one of his fans, and an FBI agent reveals that he has been targeted by the K.G.B.'s division of paranormal warfare, and a hitman gives him the fight of his life before killing himself in a freakishly gruesome way, that Max begins to accept that there are powers at work that he cannot explain. More surprisingly, when he tries to infiltrate the island hideout of the dark wizard who wants to end the world as we know it, Max survives capture, torture, and a long-winded, preposterous harangue, escaping with his sanity intact not because of his war experience, but because he, Max August, radio personality, is a wizard.

But it's not all hugs and Hogwarts from there on. The bad guys get Cornelius and turn him into a gibbering wreck. This leaves Max and Valerie with only a day or so to prepare for Armageddon at the Hyatt Regency, for which there is only one way to prepare: Sex Magick. Then it's a simple matter of stopping a ritual that will bring the world under darkness for a thousand years, trigger a force-10 earthquake that will cause California to sink into the Pacific, and turn the tide of the Cold War, at the crack between the years 1980 and '81. Fun times.

While it's always fun to read about people who know nothing about magic having to use it to save the world, I have to be honest about this book. I enjoyed large parts of it. But it did not really live up to my expectations. Some of it struck me as flat-out ludicrous; and given what I read most of the time, that's saying a lot. Other parts of it went in one eye and out the other, without calling up the usual imagery on my mind's movie screen, though I owe much of my love of reading to the fact that I can visualize almost everything I read.

Perhaps I am judging the book too harshly on the grounds that it is dated; perhaps at a later period, I could look back on a Cold War thriller with more sympathy toward the era it depicts. Or perhaps Steve Englehart's strange cocktail of ideological warfare, Vietnam flashbacks, music industry melodrama, and magic is simply a flavor too weird for my palate. Either way, I would recommend this book mainly to fans of Engelhart's comic-book creations and to readers who are game for a somewhat talky, slightly trashy, frankly bizarre take on magic set in the Bay Area in the final weeks of the Carter administration. As for me, I might read the sequel, just to see who wins the Cold War...

The Tomb
by F. Paul Wilson
Recommended Ages: 14+

A dear friend recommended this book to me, the first in the "Repairman Jack" series of horror/fantasy novels set in present-day New York. I dithered for a long time, though. One one hand, it looked like it might be cut out of the same cloth as the Dresden Files, and I wanted to get through as much of that series as possible before starting something new but similar. On the other hand, it looked like little more than the typical paperback thriller, of which I have forgotten nearly as many as I have read. Only one thing about this particular paperback raised an eyebrow: a glowing accolade by Stephen King, quoted on the front cover not as the author of The Stand or Carrie, but as the President of the Repairman Jack fan club. If Stephen King was the president of my fan club, I would have it made. But I guess, before that could happen, I would have to write a story as gripping and scary as this one.

Surprisingly enough, Repairman Jack turns out to be completely different from Harry Dresden. For one thing, he lives in New York (Manhattan to be exact), a city that comes to life in the imagination in a vividly colored (and scented), culturally vibrant, historically and geographically fascinating way that a certain midwestern city mostly known for its windiness just doesn't. Plus, he's not a wizard. He's just a repairman. He doesn't fix appliances, though; he fixes situations. Some of these situations require a rather brutal touch. Jack whatever-his-last-name-is is no stranger to violence. But until now, they haven't been paranormal situations. When magic and mythological monsters get mixed up with his career and his love life, Repairman Jack gets as freaked-out as you or I would be. The difference is his incredible toughness, bravery, and single-minded determination. When he sets his mind on getting something done, he gets it done. If it's impossible, maybe it takes a bit longer.

The first impossible thing Jack does in this book is to recover an heirloom necklace stolen from an old lady from India. By the time the woman's grandson—a one-armed, extremely Hindu character named Kusum—hires Jack to fetch it back, the silvery iron chain set with two yellow stones could be anywhere in the five boroughs. But Jack finds it well enough, and he teaches the mugger a lesson too. What he doesn't notice, however, is the nightmare out of Indian prehistory which climbs the wall of a hospital and snatches the mugger out of his room. This nightmare turns out to be a person-eating demon called a rakosh, which has been hatched for the very purpose of hunting down and destroying some of the most important people in Jack's life, simply because their ancestor did a bad, bad thing.

Karma sucks.

But then, so does getting on Repairman Jack's bad side. And when a cargo hold full of rakoshi target little Vicky, the daughter of the woman Jack loves, you almost feel sorry for them. But then you remember that they're terrifying monsters who, when they decide to kill you, usually manage it no matter how hard you kill them back. And that's where I'll leave you in this review, to decide for yourself whether you're up to a tale combining grisly claws, fiery explosions, sinister potions, and a hero whose strange and absorbing story ensure that his relationship with the strong-willed Gia will always be the most explosive thing in his life. In case you are, and you find this book as mindblowing as you might, wrap your mind around this: The Tomb is both the second book of six in "The Adversary Cycle" (each of which has a different protagonist) and the first of sixteen in the "Repairman Jack" series, both of which end with the same book! Of more immediate concern, most likely, is the fact that the second Repairman Jack book is titled Legacies.

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