Friday, January 18, 2008

P. W. Catanese

The Brave Apprentice
by P. W. Catanese
Recommended Age: 12+

“Want escape?” If you mix up the letters in that question, you may get P. W. Catanese – the pen-name of an American gentleman named Paul, who has also written The Thief and the Beanstalk and The Eye of the Warlock.

This is the first book by Catanese that I have read. It makes me eager to read the author’s other titles, and to recommend the same to you. The Brave Apprentice is sort of a sequel to the fairy tale of the Brave Little Tailor, also known as Jack the Giant Killer. Set in a fairy tale kingdom, its hero is a nimble, earnest young tailor’s apprentice named Patch.

One day Patch stands up for a helpless old man against a charging troll, and – perhaps by luck more than anything else – manages to kill it. Soon, the king’s knights have whisked Patch away to the royal castle of Dartham. It seems good King Milo depends on the tailor lad’s cleverness, as much as the strength of his men at arms, to save the kingdom from an invasion of trolls. But discovering the secret of why the trolls are invading, and how to stop them, proves difficult. A vile traitor is working with the enemy to take over the kingdom...several of Patch’s seemingly good ideas end in tragic failure...and soon, the castle is surrounded by the largest and best-organized army of trolls in history. The hope of all may lie in a young queen’s pluck, an apprentice’s wits, and a fool named Simon Oddfellow.

Here is an exciting yarn, woven out of threads of suspense, sorrow, comedy, and action, and stitched together by an unquestionable master of the trade. Want escape? Don’t let P. W. Catanese slip by you!

The Thief and the Beanstalk
by P. W. Catanese
Recommended Age: 12+

I think this is the first book written by the author of The Brave Apprentice. Both books, as well as The Eye of the Warlock, belong to a series called “Further Tales.” The Brave Apprentice is the further tale of what happened after the classic tale of the Brave Little Tailor. And naturally, The Thief and the Beanstalk is the further tale that happens after “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Here’s the idea. Everyone knows the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. A certain thief named Finch has found evidence that there really was a Jack, who may or may not have robbed a giant who lived on a cloud. At any rate, a very rich man named Jack lives in a fortress-like house in the northwest country. Finch and his band of cutthroats go in search of Jack’s fortress, they find it, and they hatch a plan to break into it. They only need one thing to make the plan work. They need a nimble, light-weight boy to climb the vines clinging to the walls of the house, a boy who will then let the thieves into the house to do their murdering, stealing worst.

Finch believes he has found such a boy in a starving orphan named Nick. But when Nick actually gets inside the house, he discovers that the old man is really the Jack, who really did climb a beanstalk and slay a giant and steal a hen that laid golden eggs, etc. Jack is now a miserable old man, haunted by regret. And since Nick wants nothing more to do with Finch and his gang, and Jack wants to believe in second chances (and not just for Nick), he lets the boy escape with a handful of magic beans.

Before you know it, Nick is in the castle on a cloud that Jack looted so many years ago. Only it is under new management now: a couple of ogres named Gnasher and Basher who have their own dreadful designs on the world below. Nick has big problems, including a swarm of maneating spiders, a diabolically clever giant, and a certain thief named Finch who has cold-blooded murder on his mind. The outcome, not only for Nick but for all the “little people,” will depend on what sort of stuff Nick is made of—thief or hero?

Catanese takes a classic fairy tale further, and he tells it well. I think you will find Nick, and his story, growing on you. I also think you, like me, will be looking out eagerly for further "Further Tales" by P. W. Catanese.

The Eye of the Warlock
by P. W. Catanese
Recommended Age: 10+

When Paul Catanese e-mailed me in response to my reviews of his first two “Further Tales,” I was flabbergasted. To be sure, it wasn’t the first time I had heard from an author whose books I reviewed. Nor was it the first time I was offered a sneak peek at a book that was about to be published. But it was the first time that both things happened together, making Book Trolley history and my year! I have reviewed many books, and I have previewed a couple, but this is the first time that I was offered a chance to preview a book I was planning to read! Thanks, Paul!

If you know about The Brave Apprentice or The Thief and the Beanstalk, you already have an idea about what the “Further Tales” are about. Each book takes its departure from a classic fairy tale, such as “The Brave Little Tailor,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or, in The Eye of the Warlock, “Hansel and Gretel.” In each case, the adventure takes place in a world where the fairy tale really happened, but a generation or two later, when a new young hero steps forward to face even more terrifying dangers. And sometimes, part of the new quest is undoing the damage caused by the thoughtless hero in the original tale.

Thoughtless, you ask? What’s so thoughtless about Hansel and Gretel? They were innocent children, abandoned by their parents in a cruel forest, lured into the clutches of an evil witch by an illusion that her house was made of sweets. Before the witch could cook and eat Hansel, Gretel tripped her into her own oven and cooked her alive. And the children made their escape, carrying away some of the witch’s treasure, so that they would not have to worry about hunger or homelessness again. Is that so wrong?

Well, for one thing, Hansel didn’t take enough treasure the first time, because years later he has to come back and enlist the aid of another woodcutter’s boy to steal the rest of it. For another thing, Hansel apparently didn’t think about the witch’s thousand-year-old, warlock father, who is very agnry: not because the witch is dead, but because she stole the warlock’s treasure and the warlock wants it back. Vile Vilikus—deathless, indestructable, with a habit of eating children and an army of amphibians called murglins—has come to the dark forest to make it even darker (not to mention wetter). He wants his treasure—and since Hansel has it, that means he wants Hansel.

So Vilikus and his vile murglin stooges kidnap the children of the village, demanding to have Hansel handed to him before he will let them go. Of course, being what he is, he probably doesn’t mean to let them go at all. And besides, what he really wants isn’t Hansel, but an object of power that the witch stole from Vilikus and that Hansel stole from the witch...that, and a very angry boy named Rudi, who is fiercely protective of two little girls and who, like Hansel, has survived an evil woman’s attempt to lose her children in the forest. It is Rudi who is really the hero of the adventure, and who in the long run faces the greatest danger: the danger of being forced to make a pact with the devil...the danger of becoming like Vilikus himself.

With stakes far beyond the original story’s escape from a witch’s oven and a stepmother’s cruelty, the new “Further Tale” tests its new hero further than any fairy tale, further even than the other “Further Tales.” Vilikus, like the evil emperor in the Star Wars movies, tries to tempt the brave lad over to the dark side. His leverage includes not only the boy’s concern for the people he loves, but also the anger that smolders in his heart. Rudi must rely on his friends – a HUGE step – in a battle for his life as well as his soul. Stopping a monster gaining unthinkable power, and saving some children from being cooked and eaten, almost seems like an added bonus.

It’s a thin, fast-reading book, ideal for young readers, with a quick, clear, vivid style. It is creepy, thrilling, sensitive, and even a little romantic. You may have heard it here first (woo-hoo!): trust The Eye of the Warlock to make you see a well-known story in a magical new way!

The Mirror's Tale
by P. W. Catanese
Recommended Age: 12+

The fourth “Further Tales” adventure picks up the classic tale of Snow White over a century later. Among the lovely heroine’s descendants are twin brothers Bertram and William – one of them (no one is sure which) destined to become a baron someday – always in trouble, one leading and the other following – and finally, too much trouble for their parents to deal with any longer. Bert is packed off to an unfriendly uncle’s gloomy castle on the borders of the feared and hated Dwergh. Will is given lessons in warfare and personal combat. And a forgotten evil that turns love into hatred, that poisons minds and destroys lives, awakens.

As he did in his previous “Further Tales” based on Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, and the Brave Little Tailor, author Catanese imagines a whole world into existence around the sketchy framework of an old legend – and then re-imagines the legend. Catanese’s unorthodox theory of what really happened in Snow White’s tale drives this story to a surprising pitch of suspense, dread, action, and spookiness. Plus, it explores the nature of evil, the possibility of true courage, the importance of brotherly love, and the possibility of peace in spite of different ways of seeing the world.

I feel very fortunate to be on Paul Catanese’s list to receive “Advance Review Copies” of his latest books. It was a hoot to be able to read all the typos that you won’t be able to see when you buy the published version (including a gaffe on the back cover which referred to one of the twins as “Albert”). It’s a collector’s item! But it’s also a story that I would enjoy reading again – if possible, aloud, to a nephew or a friend’s kids who are as close as I may get to having children of my own. Their bedtime stories could be very different from the ones I heard as a child...yet it is fascinating how much these “Further Tales” share of the spirit of the original tales.

So, for a pure adventure filled with thrills, generous with its characters, and guaranteed to have you rooting for the good guys (even when the goodness is being drained out of them), you need to further!

The Riddle of the Gnome
by P. W. Catanese
Recommended Age: 10+

In the past I have exchanged a few notes with Paul Catanese, author of the “Further Tales” series of exciting sequels to well-known fairy tales. So it was an honor, but not a surprise, to get an “advance reviewer copy” of his latest book, The Riddle of the Gnome. This time, Catanese gives us the further tale of Rumpel-Stiltskin, the villainous yet (if this book is to be believed) tragically misunderstood gnome who demanded a queen’s firstborn son in exchange for helping her spin straw into gold when she was just a poor miller’s daughter – a gnome whose plans were undone when the queen guessed his name. Was this the end of an evil plan? Or was it the ruin of the one good thing Rumpel-Stiltskin had ever tried to do? That will be up to you to decide as you read this interesting twist on the old tale.

Here Rumpel-Stiltskin returns with the same anger problem that has made him fascinating, frightening, and perhaps funny to generations of children. So once again, it’s hard to judge his intentions as he makes young Tom an offer he can’t refuse.

Tom, who seems like a veteran of an old fairy tale in his own right, lives under a curse that brings bad luck to everyone who comes near him. This means that even Tom’s parents, who have cared for him since they found him as an infant, can’t come within twenty paces of him. He lives alone in a small hut on a small island, until the marauders sweep through the village looting, burning, and killing. Tom’s parents are gone, their home destroyed. Then Rumpel-Stiltskin’s offer becomes truly irresistable: an offer to remove his curse, if Tom will bring bad luck to a certain enemy...who happens to be the secret power behind the invading marauders.

Traveling with the surly gnome, Tom tries to understand his companion’s constant rage while also working out what it is he is supposed to do. To the gnome’s continual fury, Tom keeps trying to do the right thing and refusing to steal what he needs to get the job done. While it isn’t hard to care about Tom, as he shows sensitivity about the effects of his curse on the people around him, the fact that you grow increasingly fond of the bristly, nasty Rumpel-Stiltskin comes as a surprise. But there are even bigger surprises in store as Tom discovers where he came from, how his curse came into being, and what gives the marauders their seemingly invincible good luck. And that isn’t all.

In this “Further Tale” you will shudder at the sight of a gigantic, hideous monster. You will bite your nails as Tom contends with robbers, ravenous insects, a dark tomb, and an army of barbarians, while each discovery he makes means that he has more and more to lose. You will catch glimpses of other fairy tales – plundering the giant’s house, breaking the lovers’ curse, reuniting families that have lost each other, and so on – all the sort of thing that happens in Fairy Tale Land. And the novel’s “big payoff” will reward you emotionally, while affirming many of the best things in reality or fiction: courage, love, and the possibility of even the worst villain being redeemed.

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