Tag Archives: bildungsroman

Book Review: African Myth and an Adult Hero’s Tale in Anansi Boys

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Reader’s confession time again: Anansi Boys is the first novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I have ever read. And I didn’t even read it, really; I listened to Lenny Henry read it and give voices to each of the characters while I drove my car back and forth across town.

While Anansi Boys is sometimes billed as a sequel to American Gods, I can attest that it works just fine as a standalone as long as one is prepared to accept that the old gods live still. And I am more than used to the idea, being a fan of Rick Riordan’s.

I’m familiar with Anansi as a trickster spider god from Africa. I think it was Reading Rainbow that first introduced me to the character (but now that I’m looking, I can’t find any reference to such an episode). Much beyond that, I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, but Anansi tales are woven into the text, making any background on the character unnecessary. Gaiman even gives some of the evolution of the tales, explanations of how some people sometimes think that Anansi is a rabbit, how Anansi’s tales became African American Br’er Rabbit tales.

Because according to the novel all stories are Anansi’s, I think of this almost as much as a story about stories and the crafting of a story as it is about the way that the characters maneuver through their complicated and twisted relationships and situations, particularly because stories and songs are given such power in the novel. As a hero’s journey, as someone who reads primarily children’s and teen’s literature, it’s nice to read a bildungsroman for an adult where the everyday complications are bosses, difficult clients, worries about money, worries about adult relationships, and future in-laws. All of that is becoming more relevant to me than worries over turning in homework on time, seeing school bullies between classes, my tier in the social hierarchy, difficult teachers, or parents being unsupportive.

In this tale, Anansi dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke and flirting with young tourists in a bar in Florida. His son, Fat Charlie, who is embarrassed by his father whom he thinks made it his mission to humiliate Charlie, flies from London for the funeral. The only other attendees are a few old women, neighbors of Anansi’s and Fat Charlie’s and his mother’s when they lived in Florida. One of the older women reveals Anansi’s godhood to Fat Charlie and also reveals that Charlie has a brother about whom he has forgotten. She tells him to tell a spider if he ever wants to contact his brother.

Back in London, Fat Charlie continues at his job as an accountant for the Grahame Coats talent agency. Charlie and his fiancée Rosie continue wedding preparations, and Rosie insists that Fat Charlie should try to reach out to his brother to invite him to the wedding.

After drunkenly whispering to a spider that it would be nice if his brother would visit, Spider shows up, moves into the house, and begins an initially perhaps well-intentioned but increasing hostile takeover of Charlie’s life, house, and girlfriend.

I wish the ending of the romantic tangle had been a little less obvious.

I was mostly entwined in the story of the mystical coexisting with the everyday—and before Spider, Fat Charlie’s life is very everyday—the way that Spider’s powers manifest, the way that Tiger manifests in the world, the spirit journeys that Charlie takes with the help of the older women.

Maybe because it’s taken me so long to read a Gaiman novel, maybe because many are saying that this is one of his least, I was not as blown away by Anansi Boys as I maybe even wanted to be. I enjoyed it. I think Lenny Henry’s voices may have done much to keep this story exciting. But I didn’t love it, though I did rave when given the opportunity the morning after I’d finished it to a willing party.

I think this would be a good read for those who want to learn a little mythology without reading mythology straight—though I’m not sure why anyone would want not to read the mythology straight. I doubt Riordan will ever touch African mythology—though someone from his imprint might. I do wonder how someone from the African diaspora reacts to Gaiman’s take on their mythology. I wonder if Anansi is still a god anywhere in the world. I wonder if Gaiman should have taken on this subject, as much as I enjoy it. Most of the characters are from the Caribbean, members of the African diaspora, and to my knowledge, Gaiman is neither. He seems to have handled the mythology well, but I’m not the one to decide.

****

Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. Narrated by Lenny Henry. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. Audiobook, 9 CDs. First published 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Neil Gaiman, Lenny Henry, HarperAudio, HarperCollins, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Looking for Alaska and Looking for Answers

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9780142402511Looking for Alaska is my second John Green novel after The Fault in Our Stars. When I started out, Gwen, who graciously gave me her copy, warned that this was her least favorite, noting that in this novel is rougher, that what in his later novels gleams like gold and makes us all gold-sick, hoarding his book and wanting more, is not polished here. That was a pretty fair assessment. In the beginning, I noticed glimmers of beautiful wordsmithing and musicality. I think it more likely that I got sucked into the story and lost track of the poetry than that those glimmers disappeared, but they didn’t gleam enough for me to notice them once I was in the tunnel as they had when I read The Fault in Our Stars.

I knew fairly little about this book going in other than that it was a teen book of John Green’s. I’m not sure here what I should say and what I should keep to myself as spoilers.

It’s a contemporary fiction piece, a school story about outcasts and friends and prank wars and finding your place in the universe. Miles Halter leaves behind a life in Florida for a boarding school in Alabama. Miles wants to hang on to very little of his old life, to recreate himself, judging by how quickly he abandons the promises he made—and I’m sure all kids make—to his parents before they left him to live away from home for the first time: “No drugs. No drinking. No cigarettes” (7). Only that first rule does Miles not break, and the third he breaks within ten pages. Miles’ roommate, the Colonel, gives him almost immediately the nickname “Pudge” because of Miles’ skinny frame, and inserts him into a group of rebellious scholarship kids (at one point early in the book, Pudge himself as the narrator remarks, “The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as ‘the wrong crowd’” 20). This group includes Alaska Young, at times infuriating and frustrating, at times lovable and cuddly, always unpredictable. Miles is infatuated with the vivacious Alaska, but she is in a stable relationship with a musician from out of town. Pudge has come to Alabama looking for a “Great Perhaps,” something exciting, something beyond his less-than-exciting, rather friendless existence in Florida. For him, Alaska in all her unpredictable rebellion against society and standards represents the Great Perhaps. She is living while he merely coasting, and that I think is why he is so excited by the idea of her, apart from her apparently being a good-looking, curvy girl who wears tank tops and cutoffs and talks openly about sex and sexuality. But then in one wild night, she is no longer living, and Pudge has to decide if the Great Perhaps and he have died with her.

This book at once discusses the consequences of suicide and of drunk driving—but it is so much more than an issue book—really more a bildungsroman. The second half of the book masquerades as a mystery: what happened and why? The Colonel puts his analytical mind to work trying to unravel Alaska’s final mystery, her final act, her final rebellion. The school story form here helps too to provide a context and answers to the plot’s questions as the predominate class is a religions class where the students are encouraged to think about and write essays on the Big Questions that religions seek to answer: life, death, and our place in the universe.

The ultimate answer to suffering that Pudge finds is forgiveness—of the living and of the dead. Pudge chooses not to be held back by the past—or rather learns how to let go of the past—the very thing that I think he’s been seeking since his decision to leave Florida for Alabama and since his first cigarette. That message I can get behind—and I think most parents will find that they can too.

There is a great deal here too about the secreted world of teenagers—the one that they hide from adults, mostly represented here by the Eagle, the dean of students.

This book rarely disrespects or belittles teenagers and their small and large decisions, and I think that is part of what has made it so popular.

Other Goodreads reviewers have pointed out that Green’s characters are fairly flat and at times reliant upon stereotypes to uphold them or define them. I can definitely agree that the accents and syntactical decisions in particular were at times distracting and overblown. At times I saw Green as trying to distance his characters from their stereotypes, but more often than not—frankly—the characters did all seem a little flat and a little cartoonish.

Green works with a fairly small cast, each character standing for a group or a trope: the Eagle for adults, Alaska for the Great Perhaps, Longwell Chase for the rich Weekday Warriors who return home on the weekends to their parents…. Lara is really only present to be an attainable alternative romantic partner for Pudge.

All this said, I enjoyed the time that I spent in this book, and I tore through it— devoured it, you might say, in nine days (a short time for me).

I recognize that it definitely has some literary value, and is a worthy first novel, but I don’t think that it is Green’s best work.

****

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: SPEAK-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by John Green, SPEAK, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Dark Is Rising: The Dark, the Light, and Christianity

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1513207I found Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence—wow—fourteen years ago? It was around the same time as that I was devouring J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Diana Wynne JonesChronicles of Chrestomanci, after Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

That list alone should give you some idea of the genre and the intended audience—or an appropriate audience.

I don’t think I began to really understand its complexities and nuances until maybe four years ago (at the latest). I had always sort of imagined the Dark and the Light as synonymous with the Christian symbolism with which I was most familiar. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (ESV Ps. 119:105) and “[…] the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall man prevail” (ESV 1 Sam. 2:9). I think it was the last book that I was reading, Silver on the Tree, when I realized that Cooper’s Light and Dark has very little to do with Christian ideology (and I think that I’d read one of Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series not long before, which is I think heavily influenced by Christian mythology, and seeing the two book series in contrast may have helped to make this revelation so jarring.)

God—the Judeo-Christian God, that is—or any other god for that matter, except perhaps Herne the Hunter, who might according to some theories have evolved from one of several pre-Christian gods—really doesn’t enter into Cooper’s story at all—as much as this book in the series happens around Christmas and the protagonist, Will Stanton, is raised in a Christian household. In Christian ideology, man cannot succeed, cannot be saved apart from God. In Cooper’s mythology, the Old Ones of the Light and the masters of the Dark are more than men, almost gods, and they rely on their own power and on men for success.  That is the starkest divide between Cooper’s mythology and Christian mythology—the source of might and of salvation and the reliance of men on God or gods on men.

Perhaps had I been raised outside of the Christian faith, I would have more fully understood Cooper’s ideas of the Dark and the Light sooner, maybe even when I first read them in middle school.

For all that I’m talking about this now, realize that as a child, I missed the nuance, I missed the replacement of God or any god with more-than-men-but-not-gods. I don’t discourage Christian parents from sharing this story with their children by any means. It’s an excellent story about the conflict of Good and Evil and demonstrates the perfectly human powers of teamwork, phileo love, persistence, and sacrifice needed to combat Evil, and it gives to Evil both a human face and an otherworldly face that I think is congruent with Christian beliefs.

That, again, being said: You may need to be ready to one day have this discussion with your child. They may like me be rocked to find on a reread that the book series that they loved as a child seems now like not the same series.

But this is a beautiful book series, excellently written, neither too poetic nor too prosaic. This book has been a favorite Christmas story for a long time.  I enjoyed rereading it, and I will do so again, probably come next Christmastime.

*****

Cooper, Susan. The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising. New York: Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 1973.

This review is not endorsed by Susan Cooper, Aladdin Paperbacks, or Simon & Schuster.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Which Witch? Stars an Overlooked Protagonist

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Spoilers.

I’ve read several of Eva Ibbotson’s books, and reviewed one for this blog. Which Witch? is perhaps one of her best known, possibly for its clever title. It was too one of her earliest, preceded only by The Great Ghost Rescue (of which I’d not heard before writing this review). The theme of this book is a comfortable one: the power of love, the dangers of an absence of love, and the power of love to transform a person. It is told with a twist, however. The protagonists are the wicked witches and wizards one would normally expect to find as antagonists. The true antagonist is another familiar antagonist type: a cruel authority figure who ought to be nurturing but is not, in this case a matron of an orphanage (see Miss Hannigan, see Miss Minchin, see even Professor Snape).

The handsome but wicked Arriman the Awful, wizard of the North, raised by most understanding parents who gave him every opportunity and encouraged his wickedness and power, finds himself aging. Arriman, too busy smiting and blighting, has done nothing to prepare for such an eventuality. He is told by a clairvoyant that an heir is coming, so he posts a three-headed Wizard Watcher at his gate but it seems in vain. Believing that he will have to take matters into his own hands, Arriman agrees very reluctantly to seek a wife, and holds a competition to determine the most wicked and therefore most eligible wife to bear him an heir. Within the coven is one white witch, Belladonna, who wishes to be black and accepted by the coven that shuns her for her whiteness.

Though the romance is theirs, I feel that the truly pivotal protagonist is Terrence, the unwanted orphan, abused by his matron. In his defense Belladonna performs the darkest magic that she has ever managed. The two of them decide that the factor enabling this blackness is Terrence’s pet worm, Rover. Belladonna takes Rover as a familiar, and Terrence begs to be brought along as her servant.

Terrence has the most fun he ever has and finds himself the most sought after he that ever has done by making himself useful to Belladonna, Arriman, and Arriman’s staff.

Stolen away, Terrence overhears the matron discussing the reasons for her abuse, enumerating the inexplicable oddities that he has displayed. In fright, he manages a spell of his own, and returning to Darkington Hall, takes his place as Arriman’s apprentice and heir, enabling the marriage of Arriman and Belladonna.

I openly admit to a love of books that play with the readers’ expectations and with POV particularly. The story to me was predictable but the familiarity of a predictable storyline can be sometimes just what the soul orders. Ibbotson here does nothing to disparage goodness or whiteness. In fact, Ibbotson writes to ease the fear of the paranormal and supernatural that haunted her according to her Goodreads bio. So parents ought not to find fault with the book on that account. Belladonna’s whiteness stands as an impediment to her marriage to the man that she loves, and love is the ultimate goal of every character within the book—expect perhaps Madame Olympia, who is painted as too black for even these black wizards and witches. The story’s black magic is negligible (there seem to be no consequences to Arriman’s smiting and blighting and it seems to happen primarily within the confines of his own property, Madame Olympia’s most foul magic has the power only to frighten and is not lasting) and punished (Nancy loses her twin Nora temporarily to a bottomless hole and so learns the value of family) and reversible (Terrence and Arriman put almost all to rights at the end). Ibbotson writes with her tongue in her cheek, using humor to reveal the world and its flaws.

I was somewhat disappointed by the emphasis Arriman places on physical appearance in his search for love and with the clichéd linkage between goodness and beauty and wickedness and ugliness in this book, but no so much as to toss the book aside.

****

Ibbotson, Eva. Which Witch? Illus. Annabel Large. New York: Puffin-Penguin, 2000. Originally published by Macmillan, 1979.

This review is not endorsed by Eva Ibbotson, her estate, Puffin Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: American Born Chinese Smashes Stereotypes and Issues Challenges Directly

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Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is another book that I was introduced to by A. LaFaye in that same History and Criticism of Children’s Literature class at Hollins University, and is another that I have read many times since that class. This is an award winning graphic novel about Jin Wang’s struggle to fit into a predominantly Caucasian America as a Chinese American. It parallels with the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King, a powerful monkey who wants to be a god, but whom the gods refuse because he’s a monkey. Told with a laugh track and canned applause like a 90s television comedy, the third strand of the story, “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” features the worst of Chinese stereotypes in Chin-Kee, a cousin of all-American Danny who so embarrasses Danny that Danny has to change schools each year after Chin-Kee’s visit. The three tales intersect at the end of the book with a lesson to learn to be happy as one is rather than wishing to be something one is not.

This was the first graphic novel I was able to enjoy, though a few others had been put into my hands prior, including Tamora Pierce’s White Tiger, which I’d have loved to have enjoyed. I cannot pretend to have a breadth of knowledge about either comic or manga illustration styles. I have had difficulty particularly with the American comic book format. When confronted with the form, my mind can focus on either the text or picture but not on both. A. suggested that this is a more common problem than I ever would have expected and related to the same reflex that makes me cover my eyes during horror films. In American comic books and horror films, the action is generally directed out of the page at the audience, so I flinch from horror films and dodge the illustrations in American comic books, glossing over the pictures, missing the details they add to the story, and catching only the dialogue. I also don’t approve of the hypersexualization of characters that seems pervasive in comic book illustration.

Yang’s style is more confined to the pages, even the fight sequences only occasionally having a limb extended out towards the reader. His colors are brighter, though I’m not sure what effect that would have on my reading ability unless the brighter colors are more welcoming in the same way that picture book illustrators recommend bright colors to keep a child’s attention and to create a stimulating image. The characters are not hypersexualized but rather of fairly average body type. Most of the illustrations feature forward facing characters and often direct stares, placing the reader in the position of a character, of a confidant or aggressor or opponent, creating empathy in many cases and inviting introspection and close reflection of the characters’ words.

That’s one of things I love best about this book: It issues a challenge to the reader while being readily accessible, even with its graphic novel form inviting more reluctant readers to read. It takes its challenges of stereotypes to every level, going beyond its text, challenging the belief that a graphic novel cannot have literary value (though this is becoming a less firmly held belief among critics, educators, and parents, I believe). Its illustrations blend manga and American comics while creating something new, its form a metaphor for the story’s message. It speaks openly about racism and race and prejudice.

I don’t admittedly know enough about Chinese mythology or folklore. I believe though that in the spirit of the melting pot, Yang melds Chinese mythology and Christian mythology. The emissaries of Tze-yo-tzuh, an all-powerful god who created the world and everything in it, are a bull, lion, woman, and eagle. A man, bull, lion, and eagle are traditionally used to depict the four Christian Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Journey into the West taken by Wong Lai-Taso and the Monkey King is to see and bring gifts to a humble man in a brown robe and a woman in a blue mantle with a young child. The couple and child look like the traditional representations of Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, and Wong Lai-Taso’s and the Monkey King’s journey west to give them gifts then parallels the journey of the wise men (from the East) to present their gifts to the Christ child in the Christian story.

Yang creates a wonderful piece of fiction, complex and intricate.

*****

Yang, Gene Yuen. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Yuen Yang, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of buying an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and buy it through Bookgrail?

Book Review: The Lives of Christopher Chant Stars a Child’s Perspective

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Spoilers.

I’ve read the first volume of Diana Wynne Jones’ The Chronicles of Chrestomanci several times since I was first introduced to it, near when I was introduced to Harry Potter. Somehow, Jones’ books rarely make much impression upon me. I always enjoy them as I’m reading them, and remember enjoying them, but the plots seem to fall from my head with some speed. I picked up The Lives of Christopher Chant again because I was searching my shelves for instances of magical instruction, asked my mother what she recalled of Chris’, and the details that she mentioned were not ones that I remembered—that and I was having fun making a list of fictional cats, dreaming up names for future cats of my own, and Jones’ books have several, none of whom I could remember.

The Lives of Christopher Chant is relatively quick-paced, and the language relatively simple, easily settling into the reading level of middle and late elementary students. In this tale Jones does a particularly good job capturing the child’s perspective. Chris would rather play cricket, go to school with his mates, and have adventures in the alternate worlds that he can only reach in his sleep than be thrust into society, be pawn in his parents’ war, or study at Chrestomanci Castle with promises that he will one day have to assume the responsibilities of Chrestomanci, a sort of law enforcement and high-ranking government official for the interconnected worlds within Chris’ universe.

Chris fails to see the adult perspective. He doesn’t realize—or refuses to realize any nefariousness within his uncle’s “experiments.” He does not connect his experiments with the crimes that the staff at Chrestomanci Castle are ignoring Chris to focus on stopping. Somehow that’s not irritating though. It’s refreshing. Chris is innocent where Harry Potter—the Chosen One of another more famous magical school story—is suspicious and wary. (I also use Harry as a foil because the cover of the books boasts “Mad about Harry? Try Diana.” I assume that U.S. News & World Report meant Potter given the book’s release date (2001 would have been months after the book release of The Goblet of Fire and during the lead-up to the release of the first Harry Potter film).)

Though the plot here is an interesting one—Chris’ education; assumption of the responsibilities of Chrestomani; rescue of the current Chrestomanci, Gabriel de Witt; and Chris’ takedown of his uncle’s criminal organization—it seems to intend to share its stardom with the universe.

Jones has built the interconnected worlds of Chrestomanci for me over six novels and many years, so I can’t honestly judge how well this singular book constructs the universe, but this more than any of the others perhaps really explains the ways in which the Related Worlds are connected, if the impression that it gives is vague. The physics here are difficult. There are twelve series of worlds and Series Twelve at least has an A and B, but there are hints that any series could include infinite worlds, a new world created when one world reaches a junction—perhaps something like the opposite of the Doctor’s fixed point in time—where a great event might have more than one possible outcome.

This is the only book to visit Series Eleven, and there Jones has created an eerie world of persons kept in submission to a dictatorial leader—the Dright—worthy of L’Engle’s IT, a dark, densely forest world where the Dright keeps even the laws of physics in submission to himself.

Chris as a nine-lived enchanter is able to travel to each of the Related Worlds. He does so, uniquely, through a form of spirit travel that allows him to be physically present in two worlds at once by leaving one life behind while the rest travel. Chris doesn’t really understand this spirit travel, and for a long time thinks only that he dreams himself to the Place Between whence he can enter the other worlds. Having no conversation with anyone other than nurses and governesses for most his childhood, he has had no one to tell him that these dreams of his are unusual until a governess chosen by his uncle discovers Christopher in possession of otherworldly artifacts and demands an explanation and then a confession to his Uncle Ralph.

Chris’ scattered instruction in magic was not particularly helpful for my own WIP. Chris has several instructors, and the only one that makes any real impression upon me is Dr. Pawson, who believes in practical lessons, the mechanics of which Jones doesn’t describe in detail—though that did give me some idea of how little it might be important for a reader to understand magic.

****

Jones, Diana Wynne.  The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1: The Lives of Christopher Chant.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTrophy-HarperCollins, 2001.  Story first published 1988.

This review is not endorsed by Diana Wynne Jones, her estate, Greenwillow Book, HarperTrophy, or HarperCollins Publishers Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes Delights

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Ray Bradbury has had a huge effect on me as an writer. I’m not sure I realized how much till I took a break from editing my own WIP to reread Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury’s prose is florid and fantastic in a way that few writers can claim in this century or any other. Maybe that’s a little expansive, but I enjoy it immensely. The man creates vivid metaphors and twists language with the skill and delicacy of a spider in a web.

Something Wicked is a coming-of-age tale with a thorn. Two friends—nearer than brothers—are nearing adolescence at different rates. Jim Nightshade is growing up more quickly than Will Halloway, is more fascinated with the dark and what goes on in the dark: carnal love, the promises of adulthood offered to him by a carnival in possession of a carousel that can carry riders backwards or forwards through the years. Will remains tethered to innocence and youth. He is the grounding force for Jim.

Charles Halloway, Will’s father, has lived through the years. He longs for a return to his youth, but he overcomes the temptation offered by Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show with nobility, reason, and research found in books and dark corners of the library that is more his home than his home. He is the temperance and wisdom of age, the 20/20 hindsight cast onto youth and aging that keeps Will and Jim tethered even more so to reality.

Bradbury’s work here is insightful—about humanity and the human condition, about the bildungsroman genre. It is both within the genre and without. It shares the message that aging comes with pain but also wisdom and knowledge, but it looks backwards more than hurtling forwards at the breakneck pace of teenage exuberance. Will and Jim are narrating characters and certainly they—or at least Jim—hurtle recklessly onward (Will hesitates and teeters on the cliff’s edge), but more of the weight of the narration falls on Charles. Will and Jim and Cooger and Dark create plot. Charles creates perspective.

The plot—uncovering the nefarious devices and deeds and escaping the grasping hands of a demonic carnival—is exciting enough to keep a casual reader interested, I think, but the depth is there, easily accessible for those who want to plumb it, and maybe too for those who would rather just read the adventure, coming hand-in-hand with the adventure so that it cannot be missed.

The triumph of joy and joyful abandonment over darkness add a spark of hope into the novel—and that joy is not only for youth if youth might find it more easily. This is almost a tale to laud never growing up—or maybe more accurately not forgetting the joy of youth for it does not discredit age. In fact the most heroic of the figures ultimately is the eldest of the narrators, Charles, who, with the eyes of experience and the acceptance of his own fears, is able to see the dark creatures as pathetic and frightened and so defeat them with the power of his own confidence and smile and love of son and of Jim.

This book was recently a summer reading book for a local high school. I find it ideal for that age or college students perhaps more so, straddling as it does the line between adulthood and childhood and looking backwards and forwards across it to give a piercing perspective of the two ages. There’s also merit in it for an adult audience, with an adult hero saving youth and recovering his own youth through the acceptance of his age and the through the release of his fears and dourness.

*****

Bradbury, Ray.  Something Wicked This Way Comes.  New York: Avon-HarperCollins, 1998.  First published 1962.

This review is not endorsed by Ray Bradbury, his estate, Avon Books, or HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Patrick Rothfuss, Hero Who Can Call The Name of the Wind

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For years, friends have been raving about the misadventures of Kvothe and even more so about the poetry of Patrick Rothfuss. Years back, I found The Name of the Wind in the library. I read the first few paragraphs, and I was blown away by the weight of each word, the perfection of and care taken with each sentence and paragraph break, and the images that were painted. I said, “I don’t have time for this.” I wanted to give it the time that I thought I would need to enjoy it. I’m so sad that it took me years to decide to have time for it.

The prologue is awesome, and when paired with the epilogue, it left me a blabbering mess of “Did he just— He did!” I don’t even really know how to begin to describe to you the wonder of what Rothfuss did with those four pages. I’ve never seen a wizards’ knot, but I think now that I might have read one.

Now, don’t, like me, be daunted by the prologue. This book reads surprisingly fast. Granted, I did decide to read it when I knew that I would have more than my usual free time, but I don’t think that it would have been bogged down by the usual pace of life, and I think I’d have been stealing moments to read just a little more. Despite criticism from friends who were pushed into saying something by the gabbling Facebook status that I posted after finishing the book and despite that I recognize their criticism as valid, I’m still hankering for the second in the series and was not sated but rather my appetite increased by the short story, “The Lightning Tree,” recently released in Rogues.

Kvothe is fairly likeable if a little pompous and self-aggrandizing (though in fairness he is the storyteller and can be expected to shed himself in the best light just as any of us would) but Rothfuss is the real star of The Name of the Wind. I enjoyed Kvothe’s adventures, but I enjoyed Rothfuss’ storytelling and poetry so much more. Rothfuss is a writer’s writer often alluding to the process and perils of writing by having his protagonist engage in storytelling, and there is much within the novel that rang like a hammer against a nail of truth and sympathy driven into myself. Another of my favorite sections is the four pages that Kvothe and Rothfuss take trying to decide how to describe one character because those pages allude so fiercely to the difficulty of describing characters in fiction (417-420).

The Name of the Wind and presumably the whole of The Kingkiller Chronicles are written with a frame story, and the two stories weave together to drive the reader on into the series. Kote the barman is confronted in the present-day with the resurfacing of his past, from which he has run and hid, but which has found him at last. He battles a darkness that manifests as overgrown spiders, tries to brush aside his knowledge of how to destroy them as garnered secondhand from visitors to his lonely tavern, but more privately lets slip something about a war that is his fault, of which I guess that these creatures are a symptom. His student, Bast, is worried about his Reshi and is using the famed storyteller, Chronicler, to try and get Kvothe to remember himself and become what he was. Chronicler is looking for a story, and the truth. So Kvothe is wheedled into telling his story, and he takes us back to his childhood. The Name of the Wind, the first of the three days that Kvothe believes that his story will take to be told, spans from Kvothe’s happy youth, to his tragic tween and teen years, to his first few terms at university, where he distinguishes himself but not perhaps in the ways that he had hoped, and during which time he meets an alluring girl and worries over whether or not he has her heart. This first book of the trilogy has many elements of the bildungsroman, and the adult Kote, looking back, talks about his story as if it is indeed the education and becoming of himself: “If you are eager to find the reason I became the Kvothe they tell stories about, you could look there, I suppose” (186).

Kvothe’s time at the university can be dissected too in terms of the school story, where those familiar with the genre (as many of us unwittingly are thanks to J. K. Rowling) will recognize many familiar patterns: the rivalry with the more powerful peer, difficulties in learning, the grudges held by professors, the unexpected aid from those same or other professors, a squad of friends on whom one can rely when difficulties arise in the classroom and outside of it…. I’ve said before that one of the perils of the school story is the large cast that it calls for. Rothfuss handles the cast quite well. He does not unnecessarily dive into everyone’s backstories, and their characters do seem to enter—as they should—onto the stage only when Kvothe needs them to do, but they seem too to have lives and personalities outside of Kvothe, and that is imperative to good characterization and an element too frequently overlooked when one is working with a larger cast.

In the university, Rothfuss’ fantasy is given scientific examination. Dragons are large fire-breathing lizards but are considered natural. Magic is given names like sympathy, which applies scientific principles like the inability of energy to be created or destroyed to the manipulation of objects. Naming is another form of magic that has more in common with Ursula K. LeGuin’s and Diane Duane’s models. I have always been a fan of the blending of magic and science, and so Rothfuss’ models tug at my heart. It’s clear that, as with the language and craft he uses in storytelling, Rothfuss has given a lot of thought to magic and world-building. I’m interested to see if the scientific nature of magic persists throughout the series. I don’t know how to apply science to some of the things that the elder Kvothe has clearly encountered: fey, spider demons, the angelic Amyr, and wraithlike Chandrain.   Kvothe reminds me in that way of myself:  He’s learned the science but he won’t give up the magic despite people’s judgements of his “childlike” fascination with the truth of the world that they can’t see.

If you enjoy words, if you enjoy writing, I must recommend this book as a meaty helping of prose.

*****

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day One: The Name of the Wind. New York: DAW-Penguin, 2008.  First published 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW Books, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Thirteenth House Is the Least of The Twelve Houses

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Sharon Shinn’s stellar writing, wonderful world-building, and charismatic characters have secured her Twelve Houses series a place on my list of favorite series. Of the five books, my least favorite is the second, The Thirteenth House. The first four of these sword and sorceries each revolve around the romances of one or more of the six main characters (the fifth revolves around a minor character from the first four). The Thirteenth House is the story of Kirra Danalustrous, a shiftling (a mystic with the ability to change the shape of herself and of objects that she touches) and serramarra (daughter) of one of the twelve main houses between which the country of Gillengaria is feudally divided. I like this story least frankly because Kirra disappoints me and frightens me. This time, reading the book, I realized that Kirra and I are the same age, and it worries me that someone my age (albeit that I’m sure the life expectancy is lower in medieval-esque Gillengaria and characters mature more quickly as a consequence) could make the poor choices that Kirra does. Each romance in this series is an unlikely pairing but the other matches are unlikely because of class distinctions or cultural differences, Kirra’s romance is a likely match a few years too late that is now just an unhealthy affair, so while all the elements of a romance novel are there, there can be no happy ending for all, and that’s also unsettling, another reason that this novel is my least favorite. Kirra grows a great deal through the story, and that is heartwarming, but her growth comes at the cost of a lot of heartache for herself and others. This is more bildungsroman than it is romance in the sense of genre. I’d have liked Kirra to make better decisions.

Alongside the whirlwind affair, Shinn presents a country on the brink of turmoil. Amid swirling gowns and in grand ballrooms, beside talk of marriage alliances, every character discusses war and whom they might side with. The king’s regent, Romar Brendyn, comes under attack, is rescued, and despite continued threats to his person proceeds to attend secret negotiations and politically fraught parties with lesser lords, collectively known as the Thirteenth House. Meanwhile a plague sweeps through the country that cannot be cured except by breaking the unwritten laws that curb magic.

These many plots are fairly well woven together by Shinn.

I admire Shinn’s world-building particularly. There are several religious factions among the people of Gillengaria and each goddess has a unique sphere of influence and unique abilities that they can grant the mystics under their particular care. I really do think that a strong and unique religion can add a great deal to any story.

For being my least favorite, this is more than a bridge book, and it has merit in its own right.

As one wise reviewer on Goodreads has said, I won’t condemn the book for the adultery of its protagonists.  I won’t cheer their choices, but I choose to see this as a bildungsroman rather than a romance.  So just don’t expect the fairy tale ending; it’s not a fairy tale for all that her lover is painted by Kirra as a white knight or a Prince Charming.  Kirra is not the princess.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book Two: The Thirteenth House. New York: Ace-Berkley-Penguin, 2007.  First published 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon Shinn, Ace Book, Berkley Publishing Group, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.