Book Reviews: July 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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First a quick acknowledgement: The first picture book roundup was posted July 1, 2013.  I have officially been doing this for over a year now; I just hadn’t realized it.  Since I’ve realized it, you might notice a small detail added to the title of this post.  I guess it’s time to start distinguishing by year as well as month.

Also, I ought to apologize.  This month’s is awfully late.  But never mind.  Here it is at last.

Waldo the Jumping Dragon

Waldo, The Jumping Dragon by Dave Detiege and illustrated by Kelly Oechsli. Whitman-Western, 1964.

This one I found in an antiques mall, drawn to it by the dragon on the cover. Waldo is a careless dragon who doesn’t look where he’s going, and because the characters warn the dragon that that heedlessness will get him into trouble, I’m tempted to think of this as a didactic story. He runs into a knight—literally—and the knight decides that he must slay the dragon. The knight chases him, eventually catching hold of the dragon’s neck after the dragon frightens a king and a queen. Waldo, however, just continues to jump from place to place with the knight clinging to him, until he runs into a tree, dislodging the knight, who runs away from the reckless dragon, deciding that he is too dangerous. But before dislodging the knight, Waldo admits that he is a lonely dragon, so his recklessness leads not only to danger for himself and others but also a lack of friends, making it truly unenviable to a young audience. Because he isn’t watching where he is going, Waldo breaks the 4th wall and jumps off of the page. I’ve always been a fan of books that break the 4th wall and acknowledge themselves a book. 

****

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Touch the Red Button by Alex A. Lluch. WS, 2014.

Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has spawned several copycats, including this book and Bill Cotter’s Don’t Press the Button. (There are more copycats than I’d realized. Here’s an online version intended for an older audience.) These books ask readers to interact with the illustrations, and the illustrations reflect the readers’ assumed interaction. It’s a pretty fun concept, and though I recognized pretty quickly that Lluch’s book was a Press Here copycat, I still read it all the way through, then held it out to a coworker for him to play with too. This more than any of the other books I’ve found—including the original—is more complimentary, praising the reader for following directions. But it’s also less original than Cotter’s book.

These will never be good story hour books but will always be good bedtime books. They’re educational. The interactive model makes them books of play for kids and adults too. The novelty of the concept is starting to wear off, but I think that the interactive and playful nature of the books will ensure that they keep selling.

***

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Can You Say It, Too? Moo! Moo! by Sebastien Braun. Nosy Crow-Candlewick-Random, 2014.

This flap book shows hints of the animal behind the flap. It is peppered with animal sounds paired the animal’s name. It’s actually been pretty highly praised, but I found nothing in it to disappoint and nothing in it to blow me away.

***

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Dragon Stew by Steve Smallman and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Good Books, 2010.

Now Smallman seems about as enthusiastic about dragons I am, and I understand that Vikings and dragons have a long history, but there are so many echoes of Cowell and of DreamWorks here that it seems nothing so much as a leech to the How To Train Your Dragon franchise’s fame (the movie was released about six months prior to Dragon Stew’s release). In Cowell the bathroom humor of middle-grade boys is age-appropriate. In a children’s picture book, it seems grotesque (though I do recognize that my disgust is also mixed with my outrage at the book so blatantly coasting on Cowell’s success without acknowledging it). For an older audience, I’d love it, and maybe for, say, ages 7-8 (ages which are within the realm of picture book marketing), it would be great. It’s an exciting adventure about bored Vikings who decide to go and hunt a dragon for their stew without knowing what a dragon looks like, battle their way past sea monsters, eat all of their teatime sardine sandwiches, land on a dragon’s island with the help of a killer whale, examine a pile of dragon poo, and then are confronted with the dragon itself, who rather than allowing himself to be chopped up for stew, sets their bums alight. It might be a delightful picture book, but it’s not one I’m likely to read to my children while they are young enough and incompetent enough readers for picture books—and by the time they’re ready for it, I hope we’ll be reading chapter books.

**

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The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

A wordless picture book! A wordless picture book from the ‘70s! So it’s a much older concept than I’d thought. I stumbled across this book in a local used bookstore. I was at first attracted by the title and then because the illustrations reminded me Wesley Dennis’ artwork. Dennis illustrated all of Marguerite Henry’s books, so the style was familiar and warm as a childhood security blanket. When I realized after several pages that no text was forthcoming, I became more intellectually interested.

In this tale, a farm boy with his head in the clouds spies a Pegasus. The boy tries to tell his father, but his father doesn’t believe his wild tales, and the boy’s punishment for his perceived tale-telling is a spanking. The boy sees the Pegasus again, however, and this time befriends it rather than fleeing to tell his father. Once friends, he and the Pegasus travel the world, helping other children, delivering sunflowers to young, lonely girls—acts of kindness and bravery and chivalry, sure, but I can’t really cheer the depiction of children of other ethnicities and cultures, as they are shown to need the help or love of the superior white man and his flying horse. (I’m a product, aren’t I, of my generation, as much as this book is of its time?)

[SPOILER] Like so many good horse stories, the boy is hurt riding, and he thinks that he has lost the horse. The injury softens the father. The book ends with the boy receiving a pony who is the doppelganger for his lost Pegasus as a gift from his previously hard father. [END SPOILER]

But aside from that, these illustrations are pretty beautiful, particularly the landscape and animals. I could hope for a little more emotion from the human characters but not from the animals. The format delights me. There’s room for creativity but enough to have—I think—a fairly similar story and enough illustrations to make the story coherent as well so that it is a feat of storytelling in picture format.

****1/2

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Worth Her Salt (234 words)

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Connal ignored the resentment simmering in the silence and enjoyed his drink.

Ally might have exhausted her tongue, but she hadn’t exhausted her bitterness. Her arguments would start to flow again as soon as the drink hit her, maybe with more vehemence than before if she was that kind of drunk.

But he pitied her too. It did seem a raw deal.

Connal sipped the beer again, looking at Ally thoughtfully. She was tough. She was wiry and long, the muscles visible below the tanned skin. The expression that she wore was as fierce as his own could be, enough to make others skirt her in this dingy taproom despite the swell of her chest and the flare of her hips just hanging over either edge of the stool. With her hair braided back she looked as ready for action as any man in the tavern.

Connal let his eyes slide around the barroom. Ally really did look as capable as many here, and she was trustworthy besides, which he could say for very few of the burly men lit by the candlelight.

“How,” Connal asked her carefully, “attached are you to your hair?”

Ally’s eyes narrowed sharply. “What?”

“Your hair. Would you cut it?”

“Why?”

“And your chest. If you wore baggy clothes and maybe bound those things back more firmly….”

“What’re you getting at, Connal?”

“I’m saying you’d make a good crewman.”

This week we all stole from Kate Kearney from More Than 1/2 Mad.  She wrote “The Living and the Dead.”  We pinched the first line and used it but saw nothing of the rest of her story before we wrote our own stories.

Kid at The Gate In The Wood wrote “The Silent Bar.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “No Need” (524 words).

Bek at Building A Door wrote “Small Town Stigma.”

Book Review: Island of the Aunts Uses Fantasy to Discuss the Ailments of Mankind and the Sea

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I had read a few of Eva Ibbotson’s books previously to great delight; The Secret of Platform 13 has long been a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed The Star of Kazan too, though less so. So when I found Island of the Aunts at a local Goodwill, I brought it home.

Ibbotson writes for a younger audience (elementary bordering on middle-grade), making her books pretty quick reads, but despite that, this book in particular touches on some very difficult thought- and conversation-provoking ideas.

Ibbotson uses the fantasy genre well in Island of the Aunts to talk about difficult topics, the ailments of a fallen world, with a veil of unreality that invites readers to examine these ideas at a safer distance. All of the creatures that come to the uncharted island where the aunts live are hurting in some way, and in this way Ibbotson is able to introduce a number of physical, mental, and emotional hurts. There is an old mermaid who feels the aches of age. That is a simple problem compared with the others but Ibbotson takes the opportunity to gently remind readers to be conscious of the difficulties of age and considerate towards those who cannot move with the swiftness of youth. A mermaid mother too comes to the island with her three children: The youngest is spoilt and overweight though his mother won’t admit it. One of her daughters foolishly pursues men, exposing herself and her family to danger. The other has been held hostage by a man who fondled her inappropriately, traumatizing her so that she loses her voice. There Ibbotson deals not only with the dangers of lust but also with the symptoms of PTSD. Herbert the selkie struggles with indecision. The kraken struggles with balancing work and family. Minette comes from divorced parents, splitting her time and herself to suit her parents and listening to their complaints about the other. Fabio is forced to deal with prejudice even from his own grandparents who see him as a wild boy from the jungles of Brazil and want him to be a “proper English gentleman.”

There’s a lot about prejudice—and about acceptance and the beauty of the Other—in this book, between Fabio’s grandparents and schoolmates and then the Sprott’s, Lambert and his father. Lambert is cast as an unlikeable child who cannot comprehend the magical creatures on the island as anything other than monsters and hallucinations. Lambert’s father is cast in an even worse light, and in fact is qualified as “evil,” seeing the magical creatures as nothing more than objects for his profit and being willing to hurt them and their protectors to satisfy his own schemes (251). Ibbotson brings Mr. Sprott’s prejudice too to a more human level by sending him briefly to an island of nudists who could not be kinder to Mr. Sprott but whom make Mr. Sprott supremely uncomfortable despite and whom he treats poorly.

There’s also a lot in the story too about environmental consciousness. The kraken is a beast of healing for the seas. His hum ends violence and stalls greed by influencing the mind or heart (probably both) of the hearer. The aunts’ island is a place of healing too for sea creatures. Creatures come to them having been caught in oil spills.

All in all, I feel like I read an adventure book more than I read any didactic tome. I’ve always thought that the best tools for teaching involve enjoyment of the lessons, so I feel like Ibbotson has here created a pretty effective vehicle for her morals.

****

Ibbotson, Eva. Island of the Aunts. Illus. Kevin Henkes. 1999. New York: Scholastic, 2001. Printed with permission from Dutton-Penguin.

This review is not endorsed by Eva Ibbotson, Scholastic Inc., Dutton Children’s Books, or Penguin Putnam Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Blindsided (409 words)

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It took three weeks to sail between the islands, though rough weather could turn it into a more interesting five. Not one among the crew had told him what sort of delay would be caused by a tussle with pirates.

They’d not prepared him well for that possibility.

No one had mentioned raiders. Certainly no one had mentioned sword- or fistfights or being captured and having his ankles and wrists tied together, sitting quietly on the deck under threat of being skewered like a pig while three burly men in ratty clothes watched him. 

None of it sat well with Aidan.

He wasn’t sure if he was more annoyed with the tight-lipped traders quaking beside him or the pirates.

He ought to have just gone below and hid. He wasn’t sure why he’d jumped to engage the pirates.

They had his knife and his sword now. They’d been thrown into a pile with the weapons wrested from or surrendered by the crew and a very few that belonged to felled pirates.

At least, he thought, Darryn wasn’t here. Until recently, he’d have had to look after Darryn besides, but now it was only Aidan’s own hide that needed saving.

And that made things easier.

To the man next to him, he grumbled, “You didn’t tell me there were pirates.”

“We didn’t know,” the sweating sailor pled. “I haven’t heard of any in the area before now.”

“Just our luck. Any thought what happens to us?”

“I don’t know these—”

“Hey!” one of the guards shouted, and the tip of a sword tickled the sailor’s throat. “I said no talking.”

“I was asking him,” Aidan said boldly, “what he thinks you’ll do to us.”

“That’s up to the captain.”

“Do you have a guess?” Aidan pressed.

“Pray to your gods, boy,” the pirate growled by way of answer. He lowered the sword and made to turn away, but was stopped by Aidan.

“Suppose,” Aidan said, “that I pray to the captain instead.”

“Captain don’t like beggars.”

“Maybe not, but maybe you could use an extra deckhand? Or a cabin boy?”

The pirate laughed. “Boy, you don’t want to be no pirate’s cabin boy.”

“What’re you doing?” the sailor beside him hissed.

“I need passage away. I don’t particularly care where. And you lot seem unlikely to be able to take me much farther. So what do you think,” Aidan asked the pirate, “since they can’t take me, can you?”

This week we all stole from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who wrote “Herd” (1117 words) but showed us only the first line until we’d all written our pieces.

Kid at The Gate In The Wood wrote “Red for the Blood.”

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Three or Five.”

Bek at Building A Door wrote “Paying Passage” (375 words).

May 24: More Temple-Hopping in Kyoto

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We’d always planned that our time in Kyoto would essentially be spent temple-hopping. On our first day, we visited two temple complexes. On our second day, we visited another two, and in fact, spent the entirety of our day—or all but—in temples or wandering the city streets in search of dinner.

This time we used Kyoto’s public buses.

The first stop was the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. A bit of quick Wikipedia research tells me that the official name is Rokuon-ji, the Deer Temple Pavilion, however, and that the distinctive gold leafing of the main temple of the complex might’ve been added when the pavilion was reconstructed in 1955 instead of when the complex was built nearer 1397. The complex actually has a pretty interesting history that might be worth a read: a powerful family, casualties of war, an attempted suicide….24goldenpavilionThis was the first Buddhist temple that we visited. There did seem, though, to be several Shinto shrines too on the grounds—or else there were also Buddhist shrines in the complexes that were mainly Shinto—or else the practices and architecture are extremely similar (I think it’s the first of those situations).

The complex was quite crowded, Kinkaku-ji being one of the better-known sites in Kyoto and the park being small compared to most of the others that we visited. We shuffled along with the crowded past the Golden Pavilion itself, making our way around a wide pond at the end of which sat the temple. The irises here seemed to be collected, I don’t know for what purpose—probably for sale?—but I do wonder how one becomes an iris farmer at a temple. Doesn’t that sound like an interesting character?

24goldenpavilionirisesThe path then wove us into the wooded gardens, past many ponds and smaller shrines. There were several springs that seemed to be shrine sites.This is the Galaxy Sprin, Ginga-sen, and the Ryumon Taki.(This is the Galaxy Spring, Ginga-sen, and the Ryumon Taki.)

We passed several collections of small statues, Jizō statues. The Jizō are guardians of children particularly, particularly children who have died before their parents. The coins and pebbles that sometimes gather around the feet of the Jizō and bibs that sometimes adorn their necks are left by parents—or family or friends—in hopes that the donation will shorten the sentence of their children’s souls in a sort of Limbo, stuck on the wrong side of the river—or sometimes left to thank a Jizō for protecting a child during a serious illness. They also protect travelers and firefighters.24goldenjizoAs we came towards the exit, we entered a sort of complex of its own—of mostly Shinto shrines, I think. The atmosphere was festive. Here among the shrines were stalls of food, stalls of amulets and talismans.24goldenfestiveJust as we were deciding where to go next, we were approached by a group of middle school students on their school trip. Well, their chaperone approached us first and asked if we would mind talking to them. We let the kids—a group of young boys and girls—interview us, I speaking as I normally would mostly, and Kari easily slipping into what she had learned from teaching English herself. I hope we were a good pair for them to talk to. They presented us each with an origami crane to say thank you, and we waved them goodbye.

We wandered the streets around Kinkaku-ji for a bit before finding the bus again and taking it to Kiyomizu-dera, another Buddhist temple complex on the other end of town. Kinkaku-ji cost a small fee for entry but Kiyomizu was free. Kiyomizu is built upon the mountainside with views overlooking the city.kiyomizu124kiyomizuviews24kiyomizuarchThis too is a major attraction in Kyoto, and was again crowded, but the area is so much larger that we were able for the better part of our visit to wander out beyond the crowds. In fact, I think that we found the waterfall for which the temple is named down, down the mountain along paved paths and stairs through the woods that wound and twisted.

24kiyomizulowerwaterfallOr perhaps the waterfall is this one that has been diverted into fountains where patrons drink for health, longevity, and success.24kiyomizuwaterfallBut that was near the end of our adventure in Kiyomizu, when we were becoming quite worn down from our days of travel.

We entered with the crowd. The climb to the complex itself is up a narrow and steep road lined mostly with small, wooden shops selling tourist goods, and food. On both the climb up and the climb down my eyes were too overwhelmed and my body too involved in both climbing and then avoiding running into anyone for me to take pictures. I only snapped this one, just as we were leaving the complex.

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I’m pretty sure that the women in front of us were tourists and not maiko.

Here was a more active, more festive temple than Kinkaku-ji. We passed people at prayer, taking in the incense that rose from a great vat, bowing before the altar to pay their respects, cleansing themselves at the tsukubai…. There was some sort of game or challenge to lift a heavy iron weight. We wound our way beneath overhanging roofs and out to terraces to gawk at the city below and the temple grounds far below. We climbed a set of stairs and found an area with shrines dedicated to various gods: Okuninushi and his messenger rabbit; Daikuko whose bronze stomach one was supposed to pat to have her prayers answered; Okage-Myojin, who would answer only one prayer and for whom women used to nail straw dolls to cedars to put a curse on their enemies; there were two love stones, of which it is said that if a woman could walk between the two with her eyes closed, the wish for love will be granted soon. This is particularly difficult with herds of people crowding by the various shrines, but we did see two young women make it to the far stone with eyes shut, led by guy friends, who also called out to others to clear the way. I don’t know how that affects the fortune.

We took a far path out through the woods, clinging to the hillside, that brought us to the pagoda that can been seen across the narrow valley that the temple complex surrounds.24kiyomizupagodaandviewWe then wove our way back down the mountainside, eventually ending up at that waterfall.24kiyomizutrailviewsAfter dinner, we snuck back to the streets. Night had truly fallen when we snuck into the Imperial Palace Park. We didn’t stay long. The park was not quite silent and not quite empty, but darkness kept us both from seeing much of the park itself or any of its inhabitants. We did find an impressive gate, my picture of which didn’t come out well. Then we walked for a bit along its better lit outer wall, ducking into the dry moat to keep out of the way of cyclists and because I’ve found that I like walking dry moats, having fond memories of another in Dubrovnik.

We ended up beside Nijo Castle too a little later, and though the attraction was shut down, we walked the outside of its long outermost walls and admired the architecture of the gates and what of the castle we could see over the walls.24nijoThen it was time to return to the hostel.  But we covered a pretty good area during our brief stay in Kyoto, and the following day, we would add one more attraction to the map….

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All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Vetted (999 words)

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Whoops.  A few weeks back, I wrote “Torn” (654 words) for legal theft.  This week (or last) that story demanded that I continue it.  I don’t often ignore the demands of stories.  This is a sequel piece, but I think it works all right without having read the first.

He was sick, but it was a good sick, the kind after which he felt better, the kind with which he was all too familiar. It sat in the corner of the carriage, its stink making him sicker, but he didn’t mind. He knew he’d have to be sick and sick again to feel well.

Slick complained. He complained because he said that they’d have to clean it up now. He should have been sick out the side, through the bars.

On Slick, he added to himself. And that last thought brought a quirk to the corners of his foul-tasting lips.

He had tried to wipe away the sick on his hand, but it hadn’t made it all go away.

The carriage trundled him along a road that was utterly unfamiliar, past tangles of bushes and trees more wild than anything in the gardens that he’d glimpsed over walls and through barred gates, wilder even than the tangles that grew at the edges of the farmer’s fields. They’d definitely carried him far away from the city that had been home.

Slick kept up a running babble, telling him about the caravan, about the people who traveled with him, about what they did.

They were entertainers. They made people laugh. They played instruments, sang, put on plays. The master was a fire-breather. Cheshire juggled. Hatter swallowed swords. Ace was a good chemist and had quick, cunning hands. He made people think that he was a Vatrin.

They kept a few animals too. His wasn’t the only cage. They had a white lion. Slim said that they had a cow with six legs. There were brightly colored birds, two of which could talk. They had a monkey that Blimp had trained to dance and pick pockets.

It was the unicorn’s cage that he rode in now. The unicorn had been saddled, and Gif was riding her.

He tried to catch a glimpse of the unicorn but Gif was near the back and out of sight. Slim laughed and said that he’d see her soon enough.

When the light began to fade, a call echoed down the line in several voices that made the carriages stop. Slim waved goodbye and left to help set up the camp.

It was nearly night and they had the meat skewered and over the fires before anyone came near him again, and then they came all at once. A man with a black coat was in the front, with Slim just behind him. Blimp was there was the monkey on his shoulder, a strange beast with a fluffy orange coat, a strangely human face, and little hands.

The boy kept to the back of the cage by the wooden wall and not the bars. They couldn’t reach him without coming into the cage if he stayed there.

The man with the black coat came up to the bars and peered in at him.

“Come here, runt.”

“No.”

“Come here or you won’t eat for a week.”

A week was a long time to go without food. He inched toward the bars, but was sure to stay back by an arms’ length.

“Can you make your hands glow again?”

The boy hesitated.

“Come on, now,” the man in the coat groaned, “you ain’t going to make me threaten you every five minutes, are you? That’ll get awfully tiresome awfully fast. Might find I’m not nice when I’m tired.”

“Do it, boy,” Slim urged him.

So he raised his hand. He thought about wanting light. He thought about needing light. It began to glow.

When he’d been caught in their camp and he’d done this, they’d all taken a step back, but no one stepped back now, and the man with the coat leaned forward.

“How?” he asked.

“I just can,” the boy said, putting his hand down and letting the light go.

One of the men—he wore a robe with a hood that now hung down his back to expose black hair—came forward, twisting the lid off of a jar. He dipped his fingers into the jar. When he rubbed them together, the ends of his fingers started to glow a sickly green. He looked from his fingers to the boy and back again. “It’s the wrong color, Kohl.”

“Not the powder then.” Kohl was the man with the black coat. “Any other way?”

“Only the one that I know of—and one way to check.”

“Runt, let me see your hand,” Kohl barked, sticking out his own for the boy’s. “And no grizzling about it.”

The boy didn’t know what grizzling meant, but the man made it clear that he didn’t want the boy to refuse. He remembered the threat about a week of hunger pains so bad that he couldn’t move for them. He held out his hand and wasn’t quick enough to pull it back when the man’s shot forward. Kohl grabbed his wrist and twisted. The boy shouted. Then squirmed and fought when the robed man drew a knife. The man in the coat yanked the boy forward. His head smashed into the bars as his hand was jerked through a gap between them. The knife kissed his wrist, but then they let him go.

He groaned and didn’t get up, dazed from the collision.

“Light it now,” the man in the coat commanded.

The boy groaned again and drew his hand back, curled.

“Make your hand glow, runt!”

He tried. He told himself that he needed the light, that he wanted the light. He thought and wished. They shouted at him. He tried so hard that he began to sweat. For a moment the light fizzled around his palm, but then it went dark.

“What—what did you do to me?”

The man in the coat smiled. “Get him cleaned up. Get him bandaged up. Slim, you look after him. Get him well. I want him able to glow two nights from now when we pull up outside of Riverford.”

Time to beef up my security.  Everyone stole from me this week.  Below are the links to four more stories that use this same first line.  Go see what my wonderful thieves did:

“Symptoms” (643 words) by Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master.

“Stress” by Bek at Building A Door.

“Sorrow” by Kid at The Gate In The Wood.

“Just Checking” by Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad.

Book Review: The Door Into Fire Opens onto an Intriguing World

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It took me almost 11 months to finish Diane Duane’s The Door Into Fire, first in The Tale of the Five series. I found a reference to this adult series by Duane on her blog, Out of Ambit, and not more than a few days later, found the first two books in Tattered Pages. It seemed fated and being already a big fan of Duane’s middle-grade/teen series, Young Wizards, and being more an adult than teen myself now, I thought I had better try the series.

I knew very little about these books before I bought them, only what that blog post and the covers revealed. First let me mention that there are several covers, and that if I’d even seen one of them, the Methuen/Magnet Books (UK) cover, (discretion advised), I’d have run so far in the other direction…. As it was, I found the cover above, with nothing to deter me and everything to recommend the book: a good-looking man in medieval-like clothes on a bright chestnut horse trailing fire and Duane’s name.  Neither cover really works well for me as an indicator of the story inside, but I’m very glad to say that about the one in the link. I don’t want anyone to run in the opposite direction purely because they find that cover.

Within three months, I got about 70% of the way through the novel… and then I don’t know what happened. I don’t think that whatever happened was the fault of the plot. Looking back, that seems to be a pretty exciting part of the book, battling dark spirits from another dimension and holding them back with only a net of magic.

It might have had to do more with the characters, to whom I didn’t particularly connect at any point during the book. I want to be able to diagnose why. I haven’t yet been able to fully, but here are a few thoughts:

1) The characters around Freelorn are complete mysteries even after I close the book—and I can only remember the name of one of his party—a woman who is the heroine of the sequel book. Maybe Duane hadn’t learned how to handle a larger cast yet. I’m researching now and I think that this is Duane’s first book, coming even before her Star Trek novelizations.

2) I like to expect sex rather than be surprised by it. Even so I’m very particular and am still a fan of scenes that fade to black or are at least inexplicit. From the blog and the cover blurb, I wouldn’t have thought that these books had much to do with romance, let alone with the consummation of any romantic feelings.

What scenes there were here were inexplicit, but there were several romantic entanglements, heterosexual, homosexual, with a goddess, with an elemental. While I respect Duane’s openness and boldness in choosing to write about such relationship, especially knowing Duane from her Young Wizards series, which is steeped in Christian mythology and in which Duane scoffs at the perceived necessity of a sexual relationship to drive plot or sales, these relationships were unexpected.

That unwanted surprise created distance between me and the characters, like a broken trust.

I did like that Duane focused on the complications of these relationships rather than on the sexual acts. I also liked what she did with sexual relations in regards to the religion of the world.

The religion that Duane invents for this world is very thought provoking, I think especially knowing as I think that I do from Young Wizards that Duane is familiar with the Christian mythology.

The deity here is a woman (there are some wonderful feminist undertones in this book–especially considering that the book has a male protagonist whose primary romantic partner is also male)—a pansexual woman, who has intercourse with several of the heroes and our heroine simultaneously at one point in the story and gives the main protagonist—Herewiss—a drug to allow him to see as She sees. She is in search of Her best and fullest Self by helping mankind to be their best selves.

The religion and the novel are about self-discovery and -acceptance. That self-acceptance and –discovery manifests very physically for Herewiss in the unlocking of his Flame—or magical energy—to which he has had but limited access (though what he has been able to do with this limited access is rather astounding, so he ought to be a true force to be reckoned with—a hurricane where all who oppose him are but gnats—when he obtains full access; that’s a frightening idea, and I hope that Duane plays with that truly overwhelming power through the series).

The astoundingly beautiful language and the complex and scientific conceptualizations of magic are here as well as in the Young Wizards series. Because that is a lot of what I love of the Young Wizards series, it seems worth mentioning. I have several passages marked that I particularly enjoyed. All those, as I look back on it, are descriptions of the magic that Duane has invented for this world, which I think struck a particular chord while I’m working on defining and describing my own for my WIP.

It’s not a story I regret. It’s one that I’d like to try again and read over a shorter period of time. If that changes my opinion, I will let you all know.

***1/2

Duane, Diane. The Tale of the Five, Book 1: The Door Into Fire. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty, 1985. Originally published by Dell in 1979.  The original I think was under James R. Frenkel, who left Dell to found Bluejay Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press; Tor reprinted the text with Bluejay’s permission.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane, Tor Books, Tom Doherty Associates, Dell Publishing (now owned by Random House), Bluejay Books, or  St. Martin’s Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Hey!  Don’t take my word for it.  Here’s a review by Jo Walton on Tor.com.  I love the voice that she uses for this review, and she makes some excellent points.

Challenge: Legal Theft: To Fly (291 words)

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“It’s a shame about your face.” It was a stupid thing to say, but it smothered the insults that Darryn might otherwise have shouted.

Aidan touched his cheek then looked at the blood on his fingers. “A few scars never hurt anyone,” he told Darryn.

“I guess,” Darryn babbled, “no one but you was hurt, and nothing broke—except the sled—so—”

“So how many seconds was I in the air?” Aidan begged. His grin stretched the cuts on his face so that they leaked a few more droplets of blood. “How many?”

“I—” Darryn had promised to count, but that promise had been drowned out by Aidan’s exhilarated yell, and the silent scream in Darryn’s mind as he had watched the sled shoot off of the roof like an arrow loosed through the air where no man had a right to be for as long as Aidan had been, then by the crunch of his own feet on the snow as Darryn had run after the sled, trying to determine where it would fall.

Aidan groaned, tossing his head back. “Darryn.”

“I’m sorry. I thought you would die when you crashed, and I—”

“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter.” Aidan smirked. “I’ll just have to try again, and now that you know that I wo—”

“Don’t you dare! Don’t you ever do that again!”

“You are such a wet cat.”

“Better a wet cat than a skinned one.”

Aidan touched his cheek again. “It’s not that much skin.” He looked up at Darryn. “Is it?”

Darryn shook his head. He grabbed Aidan’s arm and tugged his friend to his feet. “Come on,” he grunted. “We’ll get you to Gitta. She can patch you up. I hope.”

This week and for the remainder of the summer, we’re doing something a little different for legal theft.  Each Thursday, we band of thieves will all steal the same line so that there will be up to 6 short fiction pieces all using the same first line.  This week, the line was stolen “Old Prejudices” by Bek at Building A Door.  I’ll provide links to all of the pieces using the line too.

I misread the line a bit.  It should actually have read: The first thing that she ever said to him was, “It’s a shame about your face.”  I plan on rectifying this and posting another more properly thefted piece later, but in the meantime, I was proud of this one, and it’s staying up.

While you await my corrected piece, please enjoy:

“First and Last” by Gwen on Apprentice, Never Master.

“When You’re Blue” by Kate Kearney on More Than 1/2 Mad.

Book Review: The White Dragon and a Teen Boy Who Gets Away with Too Much

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Now, it’s been a while since my last Anne McCaffrey novel, having read Dragonquest near December or November of 2011. The next book in the series, The White Dragon, heavily references the events and world building of the first two books, Dragonquest and Dragonflight before it. I thought about quitting The White Dragon to begin the series again. I thought about finding Pern’s Wikia page to remind myself of the plots of the earlier books. I did neither. I assumed that I would catch up, and for the most part, I did, though my memories of those events and those people remained much fuzzier than the memories of the characters.

That didn’t help me to fully enjoy the tale.

Jaxom was also not the precocious kid that I remembered from and enjoyed in Dragonquest and in fact doesn’t seem to be friends anymore with F’lessan, puncturing holes into what I thought would be an adorable bromance about which I wanted to read books.

Jaxom’s not interested in bromance, unless it’s with his unusual white dragon, Ruth. Jaxom has become a very “proddy” teenager, and I, for one, was not pleased to have to read about his ill-advised adolescent flings.

First, there is Coranna, the daughter of a Holder subservient to Jaxom. Jaxom isn’t interested in her till another gets jealous of Coranna’s preference for Jaxom, which everyone involved admits might be based more on his title than on Jaxom’s own merit. Once her preference is noted, however, Jaxom admits that she is pretty, and then it is not long before he is working towards giving her a “half-breed” son. The worst of it comes in one scene where Jaxom, having witnessed the Rising of a green at Fort Hold, is awash with the dangerous swirl of hormones that comes with a dragon’s Rising, and though he does admittedly not tell Ruth to go elsewhere, Ruth takes him to Coranna. Coranna begins to complain, “I wish you wouldn’t—” The narration calls this a “half-teasing scold,” but she resists Jaxom when he kisses her, possibly even attacks him with her hoe before he disarms her. This attack is admittedly is ambiguous and might be accidental, but their lovemaking here seems as ambiguously consensual as Jamie and Cersei’s in the sept (637; Martin, A Storm of Swords, 851). At any rate, the forceful taking of Coranna doesn’t sit well with me nor with Jaxom, whose solution to his ill-sitting conscience is to never again see Coranna, to drop her like a hot sack of potatoes and run. This action is repulsive and not at all heroic, but he is not punished for dropping her. Instead he falls ill during another adventure, is trapped in a tropical paradise, and finds new love in the form of one his nurses. McCaffrey is often hailed as a feminist writer, but that’s a disgusting instance of excusing patriarchy and of the wanton use of women. Admittedly, it’s possible that McCaffrey meant for these things to sit poorly with her readers, to draw attention to the flaws of the male-dominated and sex-driven society of Pern (and by extension the societies of many of the countries on Earth). I will never be able now to ask her or to ask her how she felt about Jaxom’s behavior as an older woman looking back from the twenty-first century, but I think that this is an example of the male domination and masculine template of the fantasy genre, which we’re only just beginning to counter, and the effects that that model has on even the most feminist writers.

I’m a proponent of parents knowing what their children are reading. No one younger than a teen probably ought to be reading this series for the sex scenes alone, but I think that even parents of teens ought to be ready to address Jaxom’s behavior involving women in general and particular his final scene with Coranna. It is also fair to note that while there are several, none of the sex scenes are detailed.

In The White Dragon, more broadly, the exiled Oldtimers are worried about their continued existence, looking with wobbling chins at their forthcoming destruction by old age. Meanwhile, the Oldtimers’ indolence has bred an industrious spirit into those men who moved South. The Northerners are eying the South with ideas of conquest, dominion, and self-reliance besides. The backdrop is a forthcoming war over land, which the dragonriders of Benden Weyr hope to settle through deceit before it can come to war.

I think the plot is supposed to center around Jaxom’s sense of being between—not child, not adult; Holder and not; dragonrider and not—that theme giving the book a particularly teen feel.

I enjoyed the outlandish, arrogant, and cynical Piemur and his runner-beast Stupid. Menolly is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape of deceitful or easily lulled women, though even she is lured away by sexual pleasures and hints that she’s given her heart to a man too much her elder and supervisor. Master Robinton is as delightful as ever, his easy demeanor winning over characters and myself whenever he enters the stage. Next time I give McCaffrey a go, I think I had better choose a book about the Harpers because they really seem to be the best characters.

A quick survey of the backs of the McCaffrey books owned by my roommate leaves me wondering how far in advance McCaffrey was able to craft everyone’s backstory. The White Dragon may be third in the series, but it seems that nearly every other book on the shelf happens prior to this tale (and many happen to center around the Harpers besides).

Certainly, McCaffrey seems to write with the wider epic in mind. Certainly this book and Dragonquest hint towards the widening of the world and end with the first notes of the next book’s musical movement. I don’t know what the next book is in the series chronologically, but I can almost guarantee that it will have to do with the movement of the dragonriders to the South and Toric’s fight to extend his territory and/or maintain the territory that he’s taken, based solely upon the ending of The White Dragon.

**

McCaffrey, Anne. The Dragonriders of Pern.  New York: Del Rey-Ballantine-Random, 1988.

The White Dragon first published in 1978.

This review is not endorsed by Anne McCaffrey, Del Rey, Ballantine Books, or Random House, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.