Review: Pegasus, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley writes lots of stories where girls (or, ever so occasionally, boys) make friends with people you wouldn’t necessarily think they would make friends with. A Latin geek and a monster; a baker and a vampire; a princess and a pegasus. This friend-making tends to happen in between lots and lots of worldbuilding. Whether I like the book or not tends to depend on how interesting I find the world, and how invested I become in one or both of the characters making friends.

Pegasus is set in the kingdom of Balsinland, where the peace treaty between humans and the pegasi of Rhiandomeer is perpetually sealed by a binding ceremony that connects well-bred humans to well-bred pegasi. In general, the bonded pair do not interact all that much, as they cannot communicate without the assistance of human Speakers or pegasus shamans. But when Princess Sylvi, fourth child and first daughter of King Corone, is bonded to her pegasus, Ebon, she finds that they can talk to each other with no problem. Unprecedented as Ebon and Sylvi’s close relationship is, it excites hostility in many of the humans, and particularly in the magician Fthoom, who makes it his particular project to keep Ebon and Sylvi apart.

The core of this book is the relationship between Ebon and Sylvi, and that’s what shines. They are best friends from age twelve, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still surprise each other at age sixteen. Nor does their unique understanding of the other’s culture keep them from making mistakes. McKinley does a great job, as she always does with her supernatural characters, of depicting the fundamental otherness of the pegasi: these are not the winged horses from your seventh-grade trapper-keeper, but an alien race with its own language and culture and history. As much as Sylvi loves Ebon, she sometimes struggles with the difference between his people and her own.

Another thing McKinley tends to well is families. Sylvi’s parents are both fully fleshed out characters, whose relationships with Sylvi heavily inform the plot. The same is true of Ebon’s family, which Sylvi gets to meet in the second half of the book. The fullness of characters in the periphery of Sylvi and Ebon’s lives suggests that things are happening beyond the edges of what the book covers. Robin McKinley’s gift for worldbuilding is equally evident in her secondary characters.

I’ve seen several reviews that complained of the problematic pacing in this book, which starts out with a bit of an infodump and accelerates rapidly after Sylvi meets Ebon’s family. I have found this to be a perennial problem with Robin McKinley’s work, but in this case it didn’t bother me. I liked the world she was building, and I was willing to take some time to explore it (not so much the case with her last two, Chalice and Dragonhaven). I also didn’t mind the cliffhanger, for two reasons: (1) it wasn’t nearly as appalling a cliffhanger as y’all (ERIN) made it sound (it was no “He was out in the Dark. Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy,” if you know what I mean); and (2) my sister assures me Robin McKinley is busily writing the sequel as we speak.

Random complaint: I hate the use of “pegasi” as the plural. It’s not wrong in the sense of being linguistically problematic – the name “Pegasus” came from Greek mythology and transliterated smoothly into Latin, so if there were going to be a Latin plural it would be pegasi – but I just don’t like it. It’s forced and smug and facile, like a used-car salesman. A Greek plural would be more elegant, or if that came off pretentious, I wouldn’t have minded “pegasus” as a plural (like “deer” or “fish”). When I am the boss of the world (at which point, among other things, Ernest Hemingway should fear for his place in the canon), I will command Robin McKinley to change this in accordance with my desires.

They read it too:

Aelia Reads
The Literary Omnivore
Ela’s Blog
Charlotte’s Library (interview with Robin McKinley)
A Literary Odyssey
Bookalicious
Graeme’s Fantasy Review
Dear Author
Babbling about Books, and More
Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Polishing Mud Balls

Did I miss yours? I will add a link if so!

Review: A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner

When I was a little girl, I used to finish a book and turn around and read it all over again.  The Little Princess, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Travel Far, Pay No Fare.  I’m not talking about rereading (I still do loads of rereading), but finishing a book and flipping it over and starting all over again, because you can’t stand the idea of leaving it behind right away.  And look, I was serious about Megan Whalen Turner before.  I loved those books.  When I finished the first three and got the fourth from my ever-obliging big sister, I left the fourth one lying around for several days while I reread the first three.  All of them.  In order.  Picking up on details I hadn’t noticed the first time through.  Only then did I carry on with A Conspiracy of Kings.

A Conspiracy of Kings is about Sophos – remember Sophos?  Darling studious bookworm Sophos from The Thief?  Don’t keep reading this review right now, if you haven’t read the foregoing three books, because I can’t really talk about A Conspiracy of Kings without spoiling the books that have come before.  Again I say unto you, stop reading this review and go do something else, if you have not read Megan Whalen Turner’s other books.

Are you gone?

Okay then.  So Sophos, heir to the king of Sounis, is on the run.  The barons of Sounis and the ambassadors of the Mede are making trouble for Sophos, necessitating a flight to Attolia, where his old friend Gen is now the King.  The book opens with Sophos, whom Gen has believed dead, finally reaching the sanctuary of Attolia – well, relative sanctuary, given that the country of which Sophos is king is at war with the country of which Gen is king.

I’ve read several reviews of A Conspiracy of Kings that expressed regret at the way the narrative shifts away from Gen.  Now look, I enjoy spending time with Gen as much as anybody, but I thought Sophos was a splendid point-of-view character.  In this book, Turner deals with the question of choosing the sort of person you want to be: Sophos has the opportunity to decide whether he wants to go back to his old life.  Or in fact he has several opportunities, and until he’s practically forced by circumstance, he doesn’t step up and take responsibility.  It’s only when he’s got his back against the wall that he makes the decision to grow up.  Sophos.  Bless him.

(Anyway, there’s plenty of Gen.)

What can I say?  Everything I loved about the foregoing books, I loved about this one.  I loved seeing Sophos grow up, especially because he comes to terms with doing things he’d rather not do for the sake of his country, without losing his (can I say this and not make you gag? Only I can’t think of any other way of putting it) sweetness of spirit.  There were further political machinations, and a gaining-the-throne scene that pleased me by being quite unlike Sophos and yet perfectly in line with the arc of his character development.

Have you read this yet?  Do you think it would be a good thing to have one of the queens narrate the fifth book that Megan Whalen Turner is undoubtedly engaged in writing at this very moment so that she can release it tomorrow and fill my life with yet more joy?  I suppose it would be tricky to have Attolia as a POV character, given that she’s so buttoned up, but I think Eddis would be an interesting narrator.

Other reviews:

Book Lust & The Written World
Stella Matutina
Charlotte’s Library (incidentally expresses exactly how I felt when I started reading this book!)
Book Nut
Angieville
A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy
Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books
Dear Author
One Librarian’s Book Reviews

Did I miss yours?  Tell me if so, and I will add a link!

Immoderately gushing about Megan Whalen Turner

May I begin in justifying myself slightly for the fact that I have not read these books until now although my sister Anna read and recommended them, like, a decade ago?

When I really love a book, I want everyone who I think would like it to read it so that they can love it also.  To this end, I will wheedle and cajole and sometimes manipulatively give the book to them as a gift so they will feel guilty for not reading it.  It’s for their own good.  In short, I cannot rest until the joy has been spread.  I am an evangelist for the books (and films and TV shows) that I love.  I know that marketing principle where you have to remind people a whole bunch of times before you can expect them to take action, and I do it.  Only because I want my loved ones to have the same joyous reading experiences that I have had.

My sister Anna does not operate quite in the same way.  From what I can observe, she has a more live and let live philosophy.  If she tells me a book is good, and I then don’t read it, it’s possible she may never bring it up again.  If she tells me a book is good, and I start it and don’t like it, she will probably leave it at that.  SO NOT LIKE ME!  I will pester the crap out of people until they give my books another chance.  Anna, not so much.  So I can’t always tell from her recommendations the difference between a book that is good and my life is empty without it, and a book that is, you know, fine.

(Or else possibly Anna and I act the exact same way in regard to books we love madly, and I am making up a lot of self-justifying claptrap because I feel that without a reason for my not having read these books years ago the universe is too bleak and wretched to be bothered with.)

I do not necessarily know that your life is empty without Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series.  But mine was.  These books – The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings, which I have not yet read – are set in an ancient-Greece-like (but not ancient Greece) fantasy world with religion and mythology and politics.  They are made up of pure win.  They make me want to stride up and down gesturing energetically and shouting about how good they are.  The politics are twisty and complex and feel realistic but do not bore me to tears.  The characters grow and change, and when they interact with each other, there is all this boilingly tense subtext underneath the actual words that they are saying.

A very true story about me: I love subtext.  I’m mad for subtext.  Considering the epic crush I have on words, I am mighty appreciative of things left unsaid.  Subtext.  The simmery-er, the better.  When I find an author who can make me quiver with tension during a scene where it’s just two people sitting around talking, I’m hers for life.  (Or his, of course!)  I will overlook a lot of flaws in a book that knows how to play its subtext.

Take, for example, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, a very imperfect book, God knows, but I love it quite passionately for its dialogue, every line of which means at least one thing other than the actual words being said.  Or take nearly any scene between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, and you will see it is rife with beautiful, crackling subtext: see in particular the scene by the riverbank in Gaudy Night.  You know that one?  Damn good scene.

Megan Whalen Turner is also very good at this, so I may have been too high on subtext to spot any flaws.  I have seen reviews that found the plots of (some of) the books in this series slow, but I didn’t mind.  I was too busy enjoying the lovely character interactions.  The central character is a person with a tendency towards self-concealment, and many of the twists in the plot arise from your (or other characters’) (or both) not knowing him as well as you think you do.  This is a very cool kind of plot twist – the kind that makes you go back and reevaluate actions and words that you thought you understood the first time around but you really did not.  (Unless you’re me.  If you’re me, you did. I sneakily find out plot twists ahead of time by causing my sister to tell them to me.)

(While I’m gushing, can I get some love for the phrase “plot twist”? I dunno who came up with that, but that’s a brilliant phrase for it!  It makes a wonderful image in my mind!  TWIST.)

I guess since I have gone on and on about them, I should briefly say what these books are about. They are in a series, and since I know other people who are not me dislike spoilers, I don’t want to say too much about any one book and spoil the ones that came before it.  Very vaguely then: The Queen’s Thief books are about a thief called Eugenides (Gen), who lives in a section of the world that is not altogether unlike ancient Greece (before Alexander the Great, this would be).  For one reason and another, Gen finds himself mixed up with people in high places, and political turmoil, of varying scope and consequence throughout the several books, ensues.

I gobbled up The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia this weekend all in one mighty gobble, and then I had to wait and borrow A Conspiracy of Kings from my sister.  I hope the fourth book lives up to the previous ones and does not wrap up everything up tidily but rather leaves many things open for future books that Megan Whalen Turner is going to write swiftly and release promptly.  Thanks to Memory for reading these recently – your reviews tipped me over the edge!

Once again there are too many other reviews of these books for my slow old computer to load and then link to, plus I am tired and want to go to bed early tonight, so if you are yearning to see what the blogosphere thinks of Megan Whalen Turner I refer you to the glorious and oft-consulted-by-me Book Blogs Search Engine.

Because it is rich with mythology and features the gods, I am counting these books towards the Once Upon a Time Challenge, yet another challenge about which I have in no way forgotten.  How could I?  It has such a pretty button!

So how about it, everyone?  Are you a book evangelist?  Once you have made your initial recommendation to your loved ones about a book you adored, do you keep knocking on their doors in suits with copies of the book in your hands, or do you shut up and leave them alone to read whatever they darn well feel like reading?  How good is the phrase “plot twist”?  Are you, too, a subtext junkie?

A discontented blog post about quite a quantity of books

My sister kindly met me at the public library on Saturday and lent me her library card.  She also gave me a baseball cap, which she assures me I should use any time I visit the public library because it will ward off the attentions of creepy old dudes.  I did not take the baseball cap, nor was I bothered by creepy old dudes, but I mostly frequented the children & YA sections, which maybe is not where the creepy old dudes hang out.  I checked out loads of books, and none of the ones I have read so far have filled me with joy.  I am plainly reading the wrong books.

Hilary McKay’s The Exiles and The Exiles at Home

Not as good as the Casson books.  In particular, The Exiles was not as good as the Casson books.  The eponymous kids are not as fun and sympathetic as the Cassons, and I identified passionately with the paucity of books the poor girls were experiencing, though not to the enhanced enjoyment of the Exiles books themselves.  Only two books each for a summer vacation, they had.  It’s iniquitous to deprive children of books to that extent.  The Exiles at Home was touching, because the protagonists wanted something I also wanted them to have, and it made me cry.

Noel Streatfeild’s When The Sirens Wailed

Merciful God, this book was depressing.  Normally Noel Streatfeild’s books have fully realized children characters, but this did not.  Normally they allow a certain degree of stability for the children as far as housing is concerned, but this did not.  It was a vivid depiction of England’s suffering during World War II, and it made my heart sad.  Except occasionally there would be a particular detail that charmed me, like when all the boys in the village where the kids got evacuated were told to turn the street signs in the wrong directions, and the girls in the village were taught to tell Germans lies about how to get to London.  That sounds awesome.

Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth

The conclusion is inevitable.  Zombies are not for me.  Here I have seen all these reviews all over the blogosphere in love with The Forest of Hands and Teeth.  If I do not love it, what conclusion can be drawn?  Only that zombies, they are not for me.  Zombiepocalypses.  I do not love them.  Zombies are not all about redemption.  Dystopia and branding of sentient aliens and human women, I’m all over that (that was spoilers for something but I’m not saying what and thus it doesn’t count).  Zombies, no.

Trying to Get Some Dignity: Stories of Triumph Over Childhood Abuse, Richard & Ginger Rhodes

Yeah, I know.  There was no way this was going to be not depressing.  I was reading it for research, and it didn’t even tell me anything I didn’t already know.  I should have confined this weekend’s research to books about gender roles in fairy tales.  Because there is nothing at all depressing about gender roles in fairy tales.  If there’s one uplifting subject of study in this world, it’s gender roles in fairy tales.

Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories

Oh yes, and I read this as research too, not at the library but at Bongs & Noodles, in a comfy armchair in the Christian Inspiration section because it was the only free chair, and not really read it but more zipped through looking for things that I would find useful.  For a book about evolutionary psychology, I found this book to be surprisingly understandable, and of all the books herein mentioned, On the Origin of Stories is the one with which I was least discontented (by far).  My favorite thing that I wrote down for myself to remember from this book is that people find stories most memorable when the characters of the stories cross ontological boundaries.  That is an interesting fact.

Noel Streatfeild’s Tennis Shoes

I read this the night before leaving home, and I stomped around the house for a while carrying on about how disappointing I found it. I did find it extremely disappointing.  The father pressures his kids into playing tennis because he wants them to be tennis champions for the glory of England, and none of them are particularly fantastic at it.  There is no excuse for such blatant badness as there was in Tennis Shoes!  She wrote it in between two of her most excellent books, Ballet Shoes and Circus Shoes (or The Circus is Coming as it was also titled)!  Why, Noel Streatfeild?  Why?

Does it count as a reading slump if you are reading loads of things, and they are simply failing to satisfy you?  Also: Given my extreme dissatisfaction, might it not make sense to order Monsters of Men after all from England?  And just buy it again when it comes out here in the fall so that I will have matching copies of the whole series?

Review: House of Many Ways & Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones

I love Diana Wynne Jones, and because I have not told you why I love her with sufficient vehemence or frequency, I will tell you why right now.  It is because her characters discover things about themselves!  They discover things, and they learn!  Glorious!  People in her books proceed by instinct and guesswork, and although these are not my own preferred means of proceeding, I like it that Diana Wynne Jones’s characters succeed.  Their approach to magic is beautifully matter-of-fact.  People can learn to do magic better, or more specifically, from teachers; but at a fundamental level, and often very successfully, they do it by instinct.  Charmain in House of Many Ways says “Pipes!  Freeze!”, and they do it.

House of Many Ways is about a sheltered girl called Charmain who only wants to sit and read.  Her family sends her to care for the house of her grandfather while he goes away to be healed by the elves.  There are piles and piles of dirty laundry there, and a kitchen full of dirty dishes, and Charmain, without the first idea of how to do regular household chores, settles for reading books and learning how to do magic and helping the king and princess organize their library.  Unlike in most books where the protagonist likes to read and her parents wish she would desist, Charmain’s reading has served her ill in some ways (well, that and her mother’s determination that she should be Privileged).  She’s incapable of doing regular chores like laundry and dishes and cooking, which gives rise to much mockery by a boy called Peter who comes to stay at her grandfather’s house to be his apprentice.

Oh, and Howl and Sophie make an appearance.  And Calcifer.  Howl and Sophie and Calcifer and Morgan all make an appearance.  Though the book is not about them, and I do not feel there is enough of them, they are their usual delightful selves.  More Sophie!  More Sophie and Howl!

Other reviews:

Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Becky’s Book Reviews

In more recent news, Enchanted Glass is about a professor called Andrew who inherits a house from HIS grandfather.  Having failed to reach his grandfather in time to get instructions as to how to care for the magical area over which his grandfather held dominion, Andrew has to figure out how to care for it his own self.  His memory is helped by the arrival of a young boy called Aidan, who is running away from Social Workers and scary magical monsters.  There is a cantankerous old neighbor who seems obsessed with barbed-wire fences, Security, and what he calls “counterparts”.  I could have done with more cool glass-related magic, but otherwise I was very happy with it.  The glass is plainly the glass from Deep Secret, by the way – I’m glad she found a use for that glass, which did not get any real (as opposed to theoretical) play in Deep Secret.

Diana Wynne Jones!  I love you!  Live forever!

Other reviews:

Charlotte’s Library

Did I miss yours?  Surely I missed some reviews of Enchanted Glass!  Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett

You know how sometimes you really, really want to like a book?  Because maybe people have suggested it to you with great enthusiasm, and you think they are lovely people, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings by disliking their book?  And also it is a book by a British author full of British humo(u)r, and when you were in England maybe several different people told you that Americans have bad senses of humo(u)r and don’t understand irony, and even though you know those people were absurd and Alanis Morrisette is Canadian, there is still a tiny portion of your brain that wants to continue to prove them wrong by appreciating British humo(u)r wherever you encounter it, even if in this case you find it self-conscious and prone to telegraphing its punch lines a bit?  And you spend maybe half of the book feeling frustrated because it’s not enjoyable in exactly the way you expected it to be not enjoyable, but then after a while you start liking it a bit better and at the end you feel perhaps a little fond of its heroine and you think you might read another?  And you wonder if it’s the same sort of “think you might have another” that happens when you encounter a new cookie that proves ultimately to be addictive and before you know it you’ve eaten twenty of them, or the sort of “think you might have another” where you want to want another so you go ahead and have another even though you are not sure you really want one?

Well, that’s where I’m at on this book.  The Once Upon a Time Challenge this year is turning into the Deeply Ambivalent Challenge for me here.

Reviews by people not overwhelmed by conflicting motives:

Book Lust
Fyrefly’s Book Blog
The Written World WITH Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Valentina’s Room
Adventures in Reading

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Tom Siddell

Can this count as part of the mini-challenge where we read graphic novels with animals in?  Animals are not main characters exactly, but they are around, and rather important.  And I didn’t like the other graphic novel I read for the mini-challenge, so I hereby decree Gunnerkrigg Court counts.  So let it be written; so let it be done.

Gunnerkrigg Court is about a girl called Antimony Carver, who goes to live at a boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court, following the death of her mother.  (Her father is off somewhere doing some sort of we don’t know what he’s doing.)  It is a webcomic that gets updated three times a week, so if you want to read the whole of it from the beginning, you easily can at its website.  I read the first volume in book form (at the recommendation of Bride of the Book God), and the rest of it at the website. It is still going on!  You have not come to it too late to join the webcomic party!  And Gunnerkrigg Court just gets better and better as it goes on!

Boarding school stories are wonderful.  Gunnerkrigg Court follows Antimony, with her magicky powers, and her best friend Kat, with her sciencey wisdom, as they learn more about the school and the world of science and magic around them.  Their parents were at the school before them, doing magic-and-science type things, and Kat and Antimony find out about that too.  Siddell incorporates elements of different mythologies into the world – Antimony, for instance, encounters Muut out of Egyptian mythology and Reynard from Alsace-Lorrain-ian folk tales.  (I remember that because MY PEOPLE were from Alsace-Lorrain, lo these many years ago, so I used to really like the Reynard myths.)

This is the second of two graphic novels I have read recently that reminded me of a particular good things comics can do, that books can’t.  When a comic is released serially, it can deviate from the ordinary narrative of the series, for one or two issues or even loads of them at a time (cf. World’s End, Dream Country, Fables and Reflections) and tell other stories.  These stories can illuminate some other part of the comic’s fictional world, or expand on the themes of the series, or give you the whole thing from a different character’s perspective.  The story about Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde in The Unwritten contributed something to the reader’s understanding of the world, definitely, but it wasn’t directly related to Tom (er, as far as I know).  It was its own separate thing.  Similarly, Gunnerkrigg Court has several chapters that are self-contained stories, looking into characters’ backgrounds, or just letting the characters have some fun.

I guess books can do this – cf. American Gods – but it tends to irritate me, when it’s a book.  I am all, STOP IT.  LET ME GET BACK TO MY STORY.  I am all, WHERE ARE SHADOW AND MR. WEDNESDAY? and I stomp about in a temper.

Other reviews:

Bride of the Book God (thanks for the recommendation!)
Reading Rants
Paradoxical

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: The Unwritten, Vol. 1, Mike Carey and Peter Goss

For the Graphic Novel Challenge!

The Unwritten is about a guy called Tom whose father – long since disappeared without a trace – wrote an incredibly popular series of books about a character with Tom’s same name: Tommy Taylor.  However, it turns out that all the paperwork proving Tom is his father’s son has been forged.  At first it is theorized that he is a fraud, the son of Romanian peasants; then people begin to believe that he is, in fact, Tommy Taylor, brought into existence by the stories themselves.  The word made flesh.

The Unwritten is set in London, a place with whose literary history Tom is very familiar.  His father was always telling him stories about the places in England and how they connect to books and authors – this plays into the unfolding of the plot and will, I expect, do so more and more as the series goes on.  There is one scene that is set at the Globe, the Globe that I love, you don’t even know and words cannot express how much I love the Globe Theatre.  It is like Mike Carey wants to say, “I love literature and I know that you do too!”  If fiction is going to be meta, it should be meta exactly like this.

The final issue included in this first volume of the graphic novel is all about Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde.  While not closely connected to the main plotline, it does give us a glimpse into the means and methods employed by the villains and how it relates to stories and literature.  Also?  It has Oscar Wilde in it.  Oscar Wilde!  I love him so!  He was such a dear darling when he wasn’t being awful!

Two things that I like a lot are Oscar Wilde and London.  And metafiction – three things.  The three things that I like a lot are Oscar Wilde, and London and metafiction, and fictional characters coming to life.  Four – no.  Amongst the things that I like are such elements as Oscar Wilde, London – I’ll come in again.  (Sorry, XKCD.  I know you don’t like it when people do that.)

I have given in to temptation and subscribed to this comic on HeavyInk.  I know I shouldn’t be spending money on single issue comics, given that I will probably end up buying the collected volumes as proper books when they are released, but I cannot resist the alluring notion of getting comics each month, all wrapped up in crinkly brown paper.  Oh, HeavyInk, you seduce me with your sexy packaging.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
The Literary Omnivore
Adventures with Words
Bibliofreak

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

So Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”, but it incorporates elements from a dozen other fairy tales, myths, and legends.  I read this article one time that Diana Wynne Jones wrote, about the process of writing Fire and Hemlock and all the different strands of stories she used, which was quite, quite interesting.  The story begins with a young woman called Polly, who is packing her things for Oxford and has come across a book that she remembers being quite different to what it is now.  This leads her to the realization that she has two sets of memories, one perfectly ordinary and one – not quite.  She begins to remember a man called Tom Lynn, whom she befriended when she was ten years old, and with whom she created an imaginary, heroic world, the contents of which developed an alarming habit of coming (more or less) true.

You know what I love the most about this book?  The fact that even when they have lost touch he continues to send her books all the time, and she always reads them.  I have written something a bit like this into a story of mine because I love the idea so much.  How brilliant to have somebody with the same taste in books as you, constantly sending you wonderful things to read.  Wouldn’t it be good to have a book dealer like that?  Sending you books?

Okay, I’ll shut up about that.  There are other things in this book that are better and more relevant than just the book-sending.  These are a bunch of excellent characters and a set of true relationships – Polly’s fascination with Nina as a child and her developing a deeper friendship with Fiona; the okay-fine-then relationship she has with Seb; Ivy’s ways of moping and clinging.  As well as being a good fantasy story, this is one of the better growing up and figuring yourself out stories I’ve ever read.  You can see the influences everybody is having over Polly throughout her life (Nina, Ivy, Granny, Fiona, Tom), and it’s so interesting to see her noticing them and sorting out what she wants to do about them.  Because that’s just how it does work: You figure out what bits of other people have blended into you, and you decide whether it’s bits you want to keep.

Then of course this is also a book that produces an excellent mixture of myths and real life, funny and serious, endearing and creepy.  The family of Leroy, which has its hooks into Tom in some way Polly can’t quite figure out, is thoroughly unpleasant, and they spy on her and make whirling men out of garbage and scary living robot things.  Ick.  I love the idea of someone having two sets of memories, because that is cool.

And um – I am squirming with embarrassment as I bring this up – there’s this one bit where Polly spends a massive amount of time and energy writing a long book about the adventures of the fictional versions of herself and Tom, the hero personas she has made up for them, and – and – and, you know, she’s young and she’s in the throes of having written a whole book all by herself, and Tom writes back to her Sentimental drivel and then writes an even longer letter about how stupid this one particular scene is (what a mean, mean, mean meanie!  She’s fourteen years old!).  Oh, God, I hate that part of the book.  Polly reads back over the book she wrote, and she realizes it’s awful, and every single bit of it makes her cringe.  I read Fire and Hemlock to my little sister a few years ago, and I could hardly manage to read this section out loud.  I know exactly how she feels.  Poor little sausage.

Fire and Hemlock. Better than all of Diana Wynne Jones’s other books, and withdrawal from which is responsible for my spending a very pleasant afternoon sitting outside in the cool sunny weather and reading Tam Lin straight through from beginning to end.  Thank you, Pamela Dean, for writing a book to keep me from the agonies of Fire and Hemlock withdrawal.

Other people’s reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog (my friend Jane was squicked out by the end, by the way, but it didn’t bother me at all – everything had been leading up to it, I thought)
Dog Ear Diary
things mean a lot
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Valentina’s Room
Fiddle-Dee-Dee’s Not English
everyday reads
Rhinoa’s Ramblings
Epiphany

Tell me if I missed yours!

Writing swear words in the margins (Review: Deep Secret, Diana Wynne Jones)

I was trying to figure out, earlier today, what year it would have been that I started reading to my little sister.  I have read her scads of books over the years, but I’m pretty sure the first one was Half Magic, and I’m pretty sure that after finishing it, we went straight on to Magic by the Lake, which means I must have had them both at the time.  I have definite proof that I got Magic by the Lake for Christmas of 1995.

Let’s say I started reading to Social Sister early in 1996.  That was fourteen years ago now.  We read a lot of books together.  I mean we shared a room in our childhood!  It’s not like either of us had to make any big effort to get together and do some reading.  Plus, my family had a big car trip every summer to Maine, which meant three solid days of driving to get there, and three solid days of driving to get back.  That is a lot of time to read.  There are times when we got strapped for books to read next.

I mention this because I wouldn’t have bought Deep Secret if I had had some easy alternative of what to read Social Sister instead.  I had decided to read it to her in the time between finally deciding I liked it, and actually buying a copy.  I liked it easily well enough to buy it, but the one they had in the YA section at Bongs & Noodles had a stupid-looking cover:

The back cover blurb is stupid too!  I didn’t want to buy that stupid book.  I was just going to read to Social Sister from our oldest sister Anna’s copy, but there were pages missing out of the front of that copy.  So I sighed heavily to make sure Anna knew how severely she was inconveniencing me by having a damaged book; and also to impress upon Social Sister the painful and difficult nature of the sacrifices I had to make on her behalf; and I bought the stupid copy of Deep Secret and resigned myself.

(I always wanted Social Sister to be pretty clear on how kind I was being to read to her at all.  When I finished a chapter, and was willing to go on and read another chapter, I would start to close the book very slowly while keeping my place with my finger, and I’d say, “And maybe next time—” which was Social Sister’s cue to start howling and begging for me to continue.  She’d screech and plead and grovel, and after several minutes of this I’d sigh and say grudgingly, “Well – okay”.  It was sort of control-freaky.  I AM NOT PROUD.)

It turned out that in addition to having a stupid cover and a back-cover blurb made out of fail, this copy of Deep Secret had been censored to make it more kid-friendly.  All the swear words had been changed into less sweary words (except the ones that hadn’t – it was very inconsistent), and anything that would have implied that anyone, anywhere, was thinking about having sex (mind you, this book is set at a fantasy fiction convention) had also been removed.  They left in all the violence though – some pretty violent violence!  It was an idiotic way of doing it.

I didn’t appreciate it.  I so much didn’t appreciate it that I read out of the stupid copy to Social Sister with a pen and Anna’s old copy in my other hand, and I checked the versions against each other and made corrections in the margins of the stupid copy.  I did it straight through.  Here is a sample (I chose these pages as an extreme example – in most of the book it’s just a few swear words here and there) (and sorry about the fuzzy edges – I was trying to scan these without cracking the book’s spine):

So reading it was sort of like this:

I apologized – (Brace yourself, Social Sister, there’s a bother coming up, and I suspect not naturally).  One of the six said, Bother – oh, for heaven’s sake!  Bother!  I mean they didn’t mind us seeing that kid get executed at the beginning, or all the business with the sticky drippy blood a little while ago, but they can’t bear the idea that we might read the word Damn in a book marked as appropriate for ages 12 and up.  Social Sister, don’t you feel that a majority of kids ages 12 and up know the word Damn already?  There, I’ve fixed it.  One of the six said Damn, and Social Sister, let’s be clear, one of the six said damn, damn, damn, and before that they said damn the convention and damn the centaur-”

“I like the centaur,” said Social Sister.

“Nobody cares what you like!” I howled.  “I am on a mission to restore the smut to desmutted books!  And this part says, One of the six said Damn, and everyone is having an orgy in the stairwell, and if they didn’t like the way she wrote the damn book in the first place then they shouldn’t have published it!  This asinine bowdlerization is an insult to the intelligence of every person ages twelve and up!”

Luckily there was a heat wave in London when I was there in 2005, which forced me to spend all my time in the air-conditioned bookshops on Charing Cross Road, and while I was there, I found an undesmutted copy of Deep Secret with, moreover, a rather cool and understated cover that does not embarrass me when I am out in public with it.

So I need never worry about that ridiculous copy again.  I have given it to Social Sister, who professes to be madly fond of it.

I have posted this pocket drama of sisterhood and smuttiness rather than reviewing Deep Secret because – well, mostly because I think it is funny.  Also because if you do not believe me by now that Diana Wynne Jones is an amazing writer, indeed that she is just everything that is great about being great, then you never will.  If you do believe me, and just haven’t read Deep Secret, I highly recommend it.  It starts out a bit boring, and you don’t think you’re going to love the characters, but if you push past that, the characters all end up at a fantasy convention and are totally lovable.  WORTH IT.

(The Guardian and Orson Scott Card both rhapsodize rhapsodically about Diana Wynne Jones and her varied ways of being amazing.)

Do you choose your reading material for public places (trains, waiting rooms, classes at university) based on how unembarrassing the covers are?  I’d like to say that I don’t but honesty compels me to admit that it is a consideration.

Reviews of Deep Secret:

Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Books and Other Thoughts
Bart’s Bookshelf

Tell me if I missed yours!