Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester

When I read the dust jacket blurp written by none other than the renowned Stephanie Meyer of Twilight series fame, I still bought it against my better judgement, and I'm glad I did. She called it the "oddest/sweetest mix of Little House on the Prairie and X-Men." Not being a big fan of Meyer's series, the Little House books, or X-Men, I wasn't expecting much from this. What a pleasant surprise it was to open it up and find that Victoria Forester is a writer with a keen grasp on character voice, plot, and pacing.

The protagonist, Piper McCloud, is a genuinely likable character whose suffering was difficult to read primarily because I really wanted things to work for her so badly. It was a compelling read. There were times when I wanted to put it down and attempt to forget that I'd ever read the first page, but I think that's the sign of a book that refuses to waver from authentic storytelling. Sometimes a story can get ugly and the suffering can get hard to read. However, that's not what made the book so enjoyable. This book's greatest strength is its supporting cast. Although most children's books leave you with a clear opinion about the characters, Forester makes it difficult to form a clear opinion on hers.

She writes in flaws that leave you wondering whether anyone (aside from Piper) is truly good or bad. The two characters that typify this are Betty McCloud and Conrad Harrington III. Neither one is really a bad person and in many ways they are Piper's strongest allies at different times during the story, but they both exhibit character flaws that make them simultaneously infuriating.

There were times when I was hoping to read that someone had pushed Conrad off a tower and watched him go splat on the floor below, and I have to say that finding out that he was actually plotting an escape from that school hardly affected my opinion of him. If it hadn't been for the miserable treatment he'd received from his parents and the deceit of Letitia Hellion, Conrad would have been irredeemably evil. Though I suppose someone could just as easily argue that without those two issues Conrad would probably have been a much different person. I guess that's all part of the intrigue.

Betty McCloud is simultaneously all that is wrong with excessively traditional conservative life and all that is right with it. She doesn't condone anything that hasn't always been done and goes so far as to alienate herself from her own daughter. Yet, she is acting from what seems to be the best intention. She believes that she is doing what is best at all times. Her limited worldview defines her character, and her gradual growth is spawned from the broadening of her worldly knowledge. Her disapproval of flying spawns Piper's shame of her own gift and all the calamity that follows grows out of that. Anyone might argue that Betty's disapproval is representative of the town she lives in and that even if Betty approved, the town still would have caused just as much of an issue. What can I say? It's food for thought.

Either way, this is definitely worth the read. There's another book on the way too. It'd be impossible to deny it. The ending did everything short of offer a preview chapter with the next title. When it does come, I'll be ready for it. I just hope it lives up to the first one. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

This is one of the most excellent pieces of craftsmanship I've ever read. All right, if you haven't read the book, none of what I'm about to say will make sense, but here it goes anyway. I was completely fooled. I bought into every word of what he'd written. I actually tried to find other books by Morgenstern or at least some biographical information about him to get some baring on where he was writing about. And yes, I did feel like a fool when I found out, though the feeling only lasted for about a minute. And then it came rushing over me: I'd just read a masterpiece. I have the updated version of the book, so I even went online and looked up the Buttercup romance scene just to if it was really there. And sure enough, there it was.

Goldman must be somewhere past brilliant. I've never seen a more well thought out ruse. I was astounded. I read again. I was just as captivated. It was perfect. The book is better than the movie, though Goldman was the brainiac behind both and for all intents and purposes the movie is practically perfect once you drown out the 80's keyboard soundtrack. Also, I would recommend watching the movie first and deciding if the story is really the thing for you first, and then reading the book whether you liked the movie or not. In either case, you'll appreciate the game Goldman plays with you unless you're a stuffy know-it-all who always has to be right and can't take a joke. If that's the case, go find some other blog. This is really not the one for you.

Anyway, Goldman wrote flawed characters flawlessly. Buttercup is a bit of a numbskull even if she is a good enough person that you want her to have a happy ending that she hasn't worked hard enough to deserve. Fezzik, Inigo, and Vizzini are a hilarious trio whose flaws seem to completely contradict their strengths and lead to their own undoing in the early stages of the story. Westley is a bit too reckless for his own good, even though he seems virtually invincible in every way. Just to make it interesting, Goldman did give him a sense of fear that was curiously omitted from the movie and buried deep enough in the book that it only comes out when the story experiences a lull in the drama. Even the beguiling Morgenstern is just enough of a longwinded headcase to turn his masterpiece into a bloated fairy tale in need of a serious pruning by its most diehard fan, Goldman.

All in all, it's a love story, a good love story. It's not afraid of falling victim to the genre's cliches as it points them out one by one. That's gutsy, and even I can respect that. Oh, and William Goldman totally fooled me with the whole thing, so he wins.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Nightlight by The Harvard Lampoon

Okay, I guess it's time to answer the question that everybody has to answer at one point in their lives (if they were alive and literate since Stephanie Meyer started writing). Am I team Edward or team Jacob? Yes, my fiancee convinced me to read the Twilight series. No, I don't understand everyone assigning themselves to teams like we were going to play some kind of Forks Super Bowl. If you're lucky enough not to know that Forks is the setting for a lot of the Twilight series, lucky you, but we don't have a lot in common in this regard. So, anyway, back to the point. I'd have to say that more than anything that I'm team anti-Bella.

I don't see what Edward and Jacob saw in that pathetic pile of shallow introspection. By far, she is the most boring dimwit in the series. The two of them could really do better. I'd really expect better out of Edward in particular since he's had the better part of a century to overcome teenage hormones and get his head on straight. At least Jacob is just getting into his blinded stage of life, not that I'm all that interested in his perspective either.

That's why I loved Nightlight. I'm not sure that it's the best parody ever written, but I think my frustration with the slowness of the series it's based upon really helped to elevate it in my mind. My fiancee was a fan as well. Belle Goose was so roundly oblivious and self-centered that neither one of us could help laughing. Edwart Mullen wasn't so much a shot at Edward Cullen as an accentuation of the self-involvement of Belle Goose (Bella Swan). Some of the jokes were a little highbrow, but all in all a good browbeating was exactly what those books needed.

Not unlike the moderately well done movie parody, Vampires Suck, the book was just the same basic joke done to its farthest extent without becoming tired. Basically the punchline in both cases was, "Get a grip, people! There are a lot of very convenient holes here. We're better than this." All in all, it was good for quite a few belly laughs even for a fan of the series in its original format, a fan like my fiancee.

The Wind Singer by William Nicholsen

I don't recommend the entire "Wind on Fire" series that this book comes from. I didn't enjoy the second or third book nearly as much, but the Wind Singer was different. It was an excellent piece of fantasy. I already wrote about my favorite book, The Phantom Tollbooth, in an earlier post and when I read this, I was reminded of that story. Both stories are great quest tales. Their plots aren't that similar, but they each have that something special in common. I really feel that I learned something from each of them, Mumpo included. Actually, Mumpo the most.

One of the charms of this story is that despite the constant peril for the characters, the author never falls in love with killing off characters. Unfortunately, he does just that with the rest of the series. However, The Wind Singer is practically perfect. I heard from another reader that they didn't care for the 'death chant' of the terrible Zars, but so long as the three of them managed to stay ahead of them and avoid confronting them, I was okay with that.

Now, I don't know if that was just the masterpiece Nicholson had up his sleeve because I was so put off by the books that came after that I kind of went cold on his subsequent series, but even if that was his opus it's fine by me. I loved The Wind Singer. It was a fun read and I've actually done a few rereads and it maintains its charm. That's something that not too many other books can claim.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chippy Chipmunk Parties in the Garden By Kathy Miller

As I was driving home this afternoon, I realized that the invention of the cell phone would have meant the end of Superman's secret identity. Where would Clark Kent suit up now that cell phones have ended the need for phone booths? Gas station bathrooms? Department store dressing rooms? And while I'm on the topic of well intended inventions that are well on their way to destroying the world as we have always known it, let's bring up Chippy Chipmunk Parties in the Garden.

You think I'm coming down on Chippy's story a bit too hard? You may be right. I mean, after all, it was a delightful little ditty about an adorable chipmunk that I'd like to carry around in my front pocket and feed peanuts in exchange for his love. But it did break one of those rules of fiction that I've been fed my entire life. Fiction isn't supposed to be illustrated by photographs. Okay, so it's a guideline more than a rule. Okay, so Chippy isn't the first fiction character to cross the uncrossable threshold into the world of Kodak, but...oh, who am I kidding? Look at the title!

Here's the problem with the world. By all accounts, I can't like this book. It's too adorable to be respectable. Chipmunks are innately cute. They're probably not-so-distant relatives of babies, bunnies, and teddy bears. However, luckily enough for me, I have no self-respect when it comes to my reading habits. I like the book. I like it because it's cute...and a little different. I like the idea. I can just picture where the thinking came from for this book. Someone observes a chipmunk and starts putting words in the adorable little rodent's mouth. She whips out the camera, goes a little chipmunk crazy, and next thing you know there's a book in the works.

It's not going to get her a comparison to Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck, but I don't think that's what she's after. I say, all hail Chippy! Why not? It does the job that so few other books are willing to, provide some mindlessly fun entertainment that's too adorable to hate.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I'll just come right out and say it. This is my favorite book. I think the first time I read it I was in fourth grade and my dad had an old copy of the book wedged in the back of his classroom bookshelf. I didn't understand it all at the time, but I remember loving Tock, Faintly Macabre, and the Dodecahedron. Now, many years later it is still my favorite book. I've read it quite a few times since then, and I feel like I understand it much better than I did in the past, though with every subsequent reading I feel like I appreciate something new about the book. It's such an extensive adventure that there's always some new facet to explore.

I think my favorite part has to be when Milo steps in for Chroma the Great. I am enthralled every time I read about the Colorful Symphony. The idea is so captivating. Of course, as things begin to go wrong for him I feel the anxiety and worry that Milo feels as well, and I am oh, so grateful when Chroma returns. All in all, that particular scene's power comes from the vivid description of a creation so utterly impossible and simultaneously believable. I really feel that I live as Milo when I read that. Regarding the book as a whole, I'd call it one of the greatest pieces of children's fantasy fiction ever written, and certainly the best by an American author. It's one of those books that you put down at the end saddened, not because of what you've read, but because you've only been given so brief a glimpse into that other world that you've loved so well.

Norton Juster has written other books since then, some that have earned him great recognition and acclaim, but for me the classic of his career will always be The Phantom Tollbooth. You just don't get two chances at greatness like that in one lifetime.