The Lives of Christopher Chant

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by Diana Wynne Jones

Published 1988

In this installment of her Chrestomanci books, Jones goes back in time.  Her earlier books (Charmed Life and The Magicians of Caprona) have the same Chrestomanci (which is a title, or office, not a proper name), Christopher Chant.  In this book, we learn much more about Christopher’s childhood and how he came to be Chrestomanci.  I’ve had several people tell me that this is their favorite of the Chrestomanci books, and I have to say that I really enjoyed it.

Per usual, Jones is brilliantly creative.  The entire premise of the Chrestomanci books – that there are many parallel worlds, created whenever a major decision could have gone two different ways (one world for each way the decision could have gone) – is fantastic.  It gives her so much freedom to have a world similar yet slightly different to ours.  Throughout the entire book, I found myself constantly being surprised by yet another intriguing premise (in a good way).  The story moves right along.  Even though this is the first book chronologically, I am trying to read them in published order (although I somehow accidentally skipped Witch Week, whoops!), and I do think that Christopher Chant was more enjoyable and interesting because I had read two of the other books (and actually several short stories from Mixed Magics, which I haven’t reviewed yet, as well).

Negatives for me are similar to what they usually are for Jones.  First off, she very rarely writes a good adult.  And I don’t mean “good” in the sense of “well-written” – I mean good – an adult who is unselfish and actually cares about the children in the story.  She pretty consistently writes adults who are self-centered and who use the children around them to further their own ends.  After a while, this begins to wear on me.  These are books written about children, for children, and I feel that the constant message that no adult is to be trusted really isn’t a positive one in the long run.  In Jones’s books (the ones I’ve read, anyway), children are brilliant and clever and adults are bumbling and silly at best and selfish and cruel at worst.  And while I realize that this is part of the appeal of her books for many younger readers, it just isn’t true and I don’t think it’s a healthy message.

My second negative is that, sometimes, I feel like she crosses a line into something rather gruesome.  For instance, early in the book, young Christopher meets and befriends some mermaids.  We don’t really learn their names or anything like that, but we know that they talked with him and were obviously intelligent beings.  Later, we find that these mermaids have been murdered and harvested for their parts (!!!!!) and that just seems a bit extreme to me.

But still, overall, I loved this book – it was exciting and interesting, and I loved the way that it tied into other aspects of the Chrestomanci series (especially the Goddess!).  A fun, solid read – 4/5.

Dragonknight

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by Donita K. Paul

Published 2006

Greetings, friends!  First off, just a moment of self-advertisement – I started a new blog!  For most of you, it probably won’t hold much interest, but I thought I’d throw it out there anyway!  :-D  My husband and I really enjoy taking hikes and exploring, and we’ve started recording our adventures.  Not a lot of beautiful scenery in February Ohio, but still!  Good times, good times.

Anyway, the book!  Dragonknight is the third of Paul’s Dragon Keeper books, and it was (so far; I haven’t finished the last one yet) my favorite out of the batch.  While the first two books focus on Kale, the dragon keeper, this installment is mostly about a character we met in the second book, Bardon.  Bardon aspires to become a knight, and has been training as Sir Dar’s squire over the couple of years since we last visited Amara.  At the beginning of the book, he’s setting off to spend several months in seclusion, to rest and pray, etc., before coming back to take (or not take) his final vows and become a knight.  Unfortunately, when he arrives at the supposedly-empty cottage where he is supposed to stay, it’s already occupied by a pair of emerlindian women who are starting on a quest of their own.

I’m not sure why I enjoyed Dragonknight more than the other books in this series.  It may be that I found myself relating to Bardon, who was doing his best to follow the rules and do what he was supposed to, but was constantly being saddled with more responsibilities, and soon found himself leading a ragtag group of individuals who never seemed to really grasp the seriousness of the situation.  It could also be that I am somewhat tired of the whole concept of “mind speaking,” which seems to suddenly be in every single fantasy book I read.  Since Bardon isn’t good at mind speaking, there isn’t as much of it in this book, which I thought was great.

The downsides were, as usual, Paul’s irritating habit of throwing her characters into mortal danger BAM! right in the first chapter.  WHY!??!!?  I find it just irrationally annoying that she seems to think that she has to “hook” us into the story by immediately having someone getting attacked, usually by some creature we’ve never even heard of before, and that she doesn’t really bother to explain, so I already have to flip back to the glossary within the first five pages just so I can truly grasp the horror of the situation.

The second major downside was, also per usual, the end of the book (I’m realizing that she’s really pretty good at the middle stuff, but lacks the ability to begin and end her stories strongly).  We spend the entire book building up this big crescendo, and then it all kind of just fizzles out.  In this book, they literally come across the Pretender himself (basically, the devil) and have this big conversation and then…  apparently he just kinda wanders away???  It’s just very unsatisfactory.  I don’t know if Paul doesn’t like to write battle scenes, or if she really just doesn’t know how to get rid of villains, but she does it poorly every time.

Still, this was definitely my favorite out of the bunch – the middle bits were pretty solid!  4/5.

“Ginger Pye” and “Pinky Pye”

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by Eleanor Estes

Published 1951, 1958

These are two of my favorite children’s books.  While I don’t love Pyes *quite* as much as the Moffats, they are still an endearing family.

First off, I have to brag that my edition of Ginger Pye is a first – “Newberry Award Winner” is actually written in pencil in the front, probably by some librarian in years past.  Secondly, I have to confess that I stole this wonderful edition from my mother …  books are a precious commodity in our family, and book snitching is pretty acceptable, as long as you’re willing to return the book if the person from whom you “borrowed” demands a return.  :-D  (Pinky Pye I picked up from a book sale in a perfectly respectable manner.)

The Pyes consist of Mama, of Papa the bird-man (he’s an ornithologist), Jerry, Rachel, and Gracie the cat, plus Mama’s parents and her little brother, Uncle Bennie, who is actually younger than his nephew and niece, since Mama was married at a very young age.  (The story of how Papa and Mama met, when he was running up the down escalator, is just one example of the delightful anecdotes that fill the pages.)  In the beginning of Ginger Pye, however, Jerry is contemplating adding a new member to the family: a dog.  The story describes how he earns the money for this amazing dog (“He’s purebred, part fox terrier and part collie”), how Ginger gets his name, and, tragically, how Ginger is stolen!  The mysterious foot-stepper, the man with the yellow hat – there is a bit of mystery to Ginger Pye, especially if you’re a young reader.  As an adult, the solution seems quite obvious, but this is a delightful read for children who are just learning the joys of reading a chapter book on their own.

In Pinky Pye, the entire family heads out to small island to spend the summer with Mr. Pye, who has a job watching birds, and working on his latest book.  Pinky, a small kitten, joins the family.  While there isn’t quite as much mystery to this one, the simple story of how the family spends their summer is sweet and restful.

While for some these books may be a bit overly nice, I highly recommend them as incredibly relaxing and delightful books for adults, and very fun and exciting books for younger readers.  If you’re looking for a read-aloud or a book to recommend to a young relative, you should definitely check out the Pyes.

The Midnight Dancers

by Regina Doman

Published 2008

This is the fourth installment of Doman’s “Fairy Tales Retold” series.  While the first three built on each other and should definitely be read in order, The Midnight Dancers is only loosely connected and can easily be read as its own story.

Per usual, Doman does a fantastic job creating a (semi anyway) plausible situation, allowing the familiar story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses (one of my favorite fairy tales, incidentally) to unfold, sans magic.

The story is about a family of twelve daughters.  In a Brady Bunch-like move, Mr. Durham, a widower with six daughters, marries a widow with six daughters of her own (the youngest one in curls).  This mixed family produces a lot of characters to follow, but Doman does a fairly good job giving everyone different enough names, making them much easier to follow.  (For some reason that I can’t understand, authors frequently give characters very similar names, which gets very confusing when there are a lot of different people to follow; The Thirteenth Princess comes immediately to mind.)  She’s also unafraid to have sisters whose stories/opinions are not super important – some of them are basically just names and that’s okay because we don’t really have time to listen to the opinions of all twelve girls.

The story focuses on Rachel, one of the two oldest sisters.  Tired of her conventionally conservative and dull life, Rachel yearns for excitement, adventure, romance – all things that seem completely out of reach.  Instead, she’s stuck spending her days working around the house and around their church family as well.  Her relationship with her dad has deteriorated, and all in all Rachel feels bored, unappreciated, and stifled.

When she and her sisters discover a secret passageway from their bedroom out of the house, Rachel views it as a perfect opportunity to start really living life.

Meanwhile, a few years earlier, Mr. Durham met Paul Fester, who actually saved his life (they were both in the military at the time).  Those who have read Doman’s other books will recognize Paul as one of Rose’s college friends.  Paul happens to be living for the summer near the Durham’s home, and, through a series of events, finds himself trying to help Mr. Durham out by trying to find out what, exactly, his daughters are up to.

Overall, this was a really good book, and I actually really enjoyed it.  However, there were times that I felt like the story spun out of control a bit.  The “bad guys” that Rachel and her sisters meet are a little over-the-top (as an aside, I’m also not sure where Doman gets her information on how people act when they’ve smoked some weed; I really am not confident that it leads to all the evils she sets forth), and seem to rather suddenly go from a kind of sleezy would-be seducer to a potential rapist and murderer, and it all seems a bit much.  In the same vein, Paul seems to take the whole “wait until the girls decide to confess for themselves” line a bit far, as there reaches a point where they’re actually going to be in danger, and he’s still shilly-shallying, waiting for them to realize the errors of their ways and freely confess.

Still, there are some excellent conversations in this book.  Paul is Catholic (as is Doman), while the Durhams are protestants.  While Doman doesn’t go quite so far as to say that the Durhams are wrong, she does manage to portray a very stereotypical “conservative Christian family” that doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me, especially since it felt as though many of the questions she raised about faith, church, and family, were left unresolved.

I did like the way that she brought Rachel and her dad back together, allowing both to realize that they were wrong; overall, it felt like the Durham family was definitely on its way to becoming stronger and closer at the end of the book.

Overall, a solid read, although a bit overly dramatic at times.  4/5.

The last of the Amelia Peabody mysteries…

Children of the Storm, The Serpent on the Crown, and Tomb of the Golden Bird

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by Elizabeth Peters

Published 2003, 2005, 2006

It’s possible (I have no idea, actually) that Peters intended for Children of the Storm to be the final book in the series chronologically.  The next book published was Guardian of the Horizonwhich is set earlier in the Emerson family timeline.  Children of the Storm does definitely wrap up some loose ends, especially concerning the enigmatic Sethos, but I am definitely glad that Peters went on to write The Serpent on the Crown and Tomb of the Golden Bird.  There is a definite sense of finality at the end of The Tomb of the Golden Bird that is satisfying.  While I wish Peters could have continued to write about the Emersons indefinitely, Amelia and Emerson have to be in their 60’s by the end of the series, so it makes sense to leave them still hearty and hale and doing what they love with the ones they love.

I really, really enjoyed this series.  The characters were so well developed throughout – I loved seeing how different characters and relationships grew and changed as the books went on.  While Emerson isn’t someone would like to be married to, the marriage between him and Amelia is great fun – a pair of people who recognize that “equality” does not necessarily mean “the same” – they work together as a team, but a team works best when each is accomplishing the task at which he is best.  The evolution of the character of Sethos was delightful as well, and I loved watching Ramses and Nefret fall more and more in love, even after the birth of their children.

This series covers over 30 years of time, and does it well.  The passage of time, especially throughout the war years, felt realistic.  Peters’s skillful interweaving of actual people and events makes her books very believable.  I actually saw a reference in another book to an event that had occurred in Egypt at this time, and found myself wondering if they were going to mention the Emersons…

All in all, I highly recommend this entire series.  I’m looking forward to reading more of Peters’s books in the future (I do believe that her Vicky Bliss series also involves Egypt, although in a more modern setting).  Good times reading these – I’m super sad to see them end!

The Magicians of Caprona

by Diana Wynne Jones

Published 1980

In this next installment of the loosely-connected “Chrestomanci” series, Jones takes us to an AU Italy:

The World of Chrestomanci is not the same as this one.  It is a world parallel to ours, where magic is as normal as mathematics, and things are generally more old-fashioned.  in Chrestomanci’s world, Italy is still divided into numbers of small States, each with its own Duke and capital city.  In our world, Italy became one united country long ago.

The story, with a Romeo and Juliet undertone, focuses on two great magical families in Caprona:  the Petrocchis and the Montanas.  Generations ago, a rift occurred between these families, and they have been bitter enemies ever since.  With the rise of an evil magic, the two houses must decide whether or not they can set aside their differences.  The great Chrestomanci may be the only one who can make them see how necessary it is for them to work together.

This book’s storyline seemed to hang together much better than some of Jones’s other books I’ve read in the past (or maybe I’m just getting more used to her writing style).  I greatly enjoyed the large and boisterous families.  Excitable, noisy, and fiercely loyal, she wrote about them in a way that easily created a background of a family even larger than the specific individuals of the story’s focus.

Quiet Tonino was immediately lovable as well.

To Tonino, reading a book soon became an enchantment above any spell.  He could never get enough of it.  He ransacked the Casa Montana and the Public Library, and he spent all his pocket money on books. … And the best book would be about the unimaginable situation where there were no spells.  For Tonino preferred fantasy.  In his favorite books, people had wild adventures with no magic to help or hinder them.

Such a simple twist of ideas, a world wherein “fantasy” books mean the characters have no magic, but brilliant.

The villain of this story was honestly quite a bit terrifying to me, someone just so ruthless and cruel.  But that, combined with the fact that Jones actually has no compunctions about killing off anyone and everyone in her stories, added quite a bit of zing to the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Magicians of Caprona.  The Chrestomanci books are shaping up to be some of my favorites of hers, and I am looking forward to reading the rest.  4/5.

Shadows

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by Robin McKinley

Published 2013

First off, Robin McKinley, what the heck are you doing publishing ANY book other than the next installment of Pegasus?!?!?!!?  (Sorry, I realize I rant about this pretty regularly, but I’m still sincerely frustrated that someone would purposely published HALF A BOOK in 2010 and then say that maybe she’ll get around to publishing the SECOND HALF in 2014?!?!!?)

Still, while I’m waiting, I figured I may as well check out whatever book it was that McKinley deemed more important than finishing Pegasus.  Shadows was a solid read.  While I didn’t love it as much as Spindle’s End or Beautyit was still a lot of fun.

Per usual, McKinley does an amazing job with world-building.  What I love about her books is how she rarely bothers to explain what the world is like.  As you read, more and more things fall into place, but it’s through casual reference more than actual explanation.   Some things she never does explain, leaving the reader to put his own interpretation on what is happening.  In this book, we have this sort of alternate universe where magic is a thing, but in New World (read: United States), magic has been outlawed, and, two generations back (from our heroine), everyone who could do magic (it’s a sort of instinctive, natural talent) had that gene removed from their being, so that magic-doers will no longer be born in the New World at all.  What our heroine (whose name I can’t remember… sorry, it’s been over a month since I actually read this book) discovers is that magic is perhaps not as eradicated as the government would like everyone to think.

While I’m not always a fan of first-person narrative, McKinley usually does a good job with that voice (Dragonhaven, for instance …  a book I’m planning to read again if my sister ever returns it HINT HINT), presenting a protagonist who is easy to relate to and isn’t stupidly obnoxious.  I DESPISE reading YA books in first person where the narrator is constantly swearing and thinking about nothing but sex.  I’m not actually interested in everything you’re thinking – I’m interested in the story you’re telling so please TELL IT.  McKinley strikes the balance of keeping her first-person narrator personable without dragging us down into every single emotion that flashes through her being.

Here’s the thing that gets me about McKinley: she basically never does sequels.  (Yet another reason that Pegasus was such a betrayal.)  But this book truly felt like the beginning of a trilogy or something.  The story finished strong and undisappointingly (new word for today), but at the end, it really felt as though she had pulled together a team that was going to be fighting the government, except we just have to imagine how that goes because she’s never going to tell us.  (I also think I read somewhere that she is really against people writing fanfiction about her characters, so there isn’t even that small comfort.)  Far more so than some of her fairy tale books, Shadows left me with a slight feeling of dissatisfaction, simply because I wanted to know what everyone was going to do next.  There were also some nagging unanswered questions about why the government was so against magic and that sort of thing as well.

Still, overall this was a book I had trouble putting down (obviously, since my main complaint is that there isn’t more of it!) and definitely enjoyed.  4/5.

‘Dragonspell’ and ‘Dragonquest’

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by Donita K. Paul

Published 2004, 2005

(Sorry; appear to be lacking a picture of Dragonquest.)  

So, I don’t even remember why I picked up these books.  I’m constantly coming across books on various blogs and Goodreads recommendations and randomly all over the place, and somewhere along the line I apparently heard about Paul’s Dragon books.  There are five altogether, and so far they’ve been decent but not amazing reads.  I’m actually in the midst of Book 3 right now, and, thankfully, they seem to be improving with each one.

The books are set in the fictional country of Amara, which is full of creatures completely unknown in our world (like dorkers, drummerbugs, and kindias), and is populated by fourteen different races: seven ‘high’ and seven ‘low,’ which brings us to our first problem:  too many things.  Paul’s writing style is far more in line with high fantasy than young adult, with a complicated world building and a story so full of bizarre creatures and words that I found myself constantly flipping back to the glossary (especially since most of the time Paul writes as though you already know what a kindia, or whatever, is).  This wouldn’t be too bad if this was limited to the animals or plants that inhabit the world, but Paul has created lots of different races of people (for lack of better term), including o’rants, emerlindians, kimens, doneels, mariones, tumanhofers, and urohms (the seven high races) and bisonbecks, blimmets, druddums, grawligs, mordakleeps, quisses, ropmas, and schoergs (the seven low races, of which there appear to be eight).  To top it off, there aren’t just dragons – there are  fire dragons, greater dragons, major dragons, meech dragons, and minor dragons.  All of this  makes for extremely complicated reading, especially when Paul has the habit of referring to characters not only by name but also by race, e.g., something along the lines of “Kale smiled at her friend.  The o’rant couldn’t believe how happy she was.”  This leaves me trying to remember if Kale or her friend is the o’rant; it’s often frustrating to try and determine to whom I should apply a certain action, thought, or feeling, because I can’t remember which of this particular group happens to be a tumanhofer or a kimen.

I didn’t realize until after I started reading them that Paul has written these book with a sort of idea of relaying Christian principles through them.  Wulder is the god of Amara’s world, and Paladin, a definite Messiah figure, is the ruler of Amara under Wulder.  The first book was rather dreadful in that aspect – I really felt like Paul was just smacking me over the head with religious teaching – I could practically see the words between the lines saying, THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF HOW JEHOVAH GOD EXPECTS YOU TO BEHAVE IN THE REAL WORLD DO YOU SEE THAT DO YOU SEE THE WAY THIS PERSON IS REACTING TO PALADIN THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD RESPOND TO JESUS DO YOU SEE HOW THIS CHARACTER IS LEARNING TO TRUST WULDER YOU NEED TO TRUST GOD DO YOU GET IT DO YOU SEE WHAT I’M VERY SUBTLY DOING HERE!??!?!  Thankfully this got MUCH MUCH better in the second (and now the third) books.  Wulder and Paladin became what they should be – a comfortable background into which the characters fit – a framework that helps to explain their actions and motivations, leaving me, as the reader, free to draw my own lines (if I so desire) between Amara’s religious teachings and the ones of my world.

The narrative flows decently through these books, although she does have a habit of forcing her main character into a life-threatening situation in the first chapter that is extremely annoying to me, especially in the first book.  I’ve known Kale for about three pages and now her life is in danger??  I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about this, because I know nothing about Kale as a person; I’ve had no time to get to know her or her motivations or why she’s in this situation to begin with, and it left me feeling very emotionally detached from the action.  It’s been a little better in the next two books because I at least know who Paul is talking about before she throws them into perilous predicaments.

The second book was much better than the first, mostly because, I think, I already knew the characters.  There was just SO MUCH to take in throughout the first book – by the second, things were starting to sort themselves out (and I was able to refer to glossary less), although I have to say that the meech dragons kind of give me the weirds – they’re almost like a human/dragon hybrid, and it was just really strange.

While the plot development is pretty good, I’ve found the endings to be rather abrupt and anticlimactic.  In Dragonquest, we spent the entire book tracking down this evil wizard and then he was defeated in about a page with apparently minimal effort and oh well everyone went home good times good times.  It was just a strange ending that technically resolved the problem by killing the wizard, but left a lot of things dangling.

Overall, I’d give Dragonspell and Dragonquest 3/5.  They’re decent books, but nothing that makes me exciting.  I’m finishing the series, but not with a lot of enthusiasm.