On Me as a Reader, and The Game by Diana Wynne Jones

Part of why I keep this blog is my fascination with the process of reading, how reading engrosses readers, how I see myself in books (and assume others do the same). My interest in reading was cemented at a young age; my mother told me that, when I was about 6 or 7, I told her I wanted to be a reader when I grew up. Not a writer, mind you, but a reader. I did get interested in writing later, but in truth if someone would pay me to read all day, I'd do it. I'm good at it. I'm observant and easily hit fiction speeds of well over 100 pages per hour. Admittedly, as I write this, I see that my careers to date--librarian, professor--may be as close as I'll ever come to well-paid work that requires me to read.

My reading preferences change continuously, but occasionally I find a book that reminds me that there are landmarks in my tastes, like the following 2007 release....

The Game by Diana Wynne Jones

Whenever I see a new book by Diana Wynne Jones (despite her being one of my favorite authors, I always refer to her by her entire tripartite name--I'll use DWJ for brevity here), I am eager to dive in and just read. If you haven't read her work, I recommend Howl's Moving Castle for starters, The Lives of Christopher Chant next, and then what I consider to be her crowning achievement, The Dark Lord of Derkholm. She's so good at handling multiple characters in succinct language that you feel as if you have distinctive portraits rather than a crowd. And when she turns her formidable powers to multiple worlds, and the effects are stunning.

For me, there are few let-downs in DWJ's oeuvre, and when I find one, it usually tells me more about my taste than it does about her writing. I found one in Dogsbody, in which an apparently everyday dog turns out to actually be the star Sirius sent to earth on a quest. My disappointment stemmed from having to let go of the humorous pleasure of the everyday dog character and instead see him in a cosmic role. The Game held a similar disappointment.

First, let me say that the opening is great fun, as the protagonist, orphan-girl Hayley, is kicked out of her grandmother's house for mysterious reasons after frolicking in a parallel universe called the Mythosphere with a musician she calls Flute. The outcast Hayley is sent to Ireland, where she first meets her enormous brood of aunts and cousins. DWJ handles this with graceful aplomb. The mass of cousins blur a bit, but the aunts are utterly distinct, and the two cousins who become Hayley's closets allies, Harmony and Troy, are crisply drawn. The Game is led by eldest cousin Harmony and played among the children, who enter the Mythosphere unbeknownst to their aunts or grandparents, to retrieve golden apples, stars from Orion's belt, and other magical objects.

For me, the let-down comes because Hayley is not really a little girl at all, but a comet, Hayley's Comet I suppose, in the mythosphere. The years she spent at her grandparents' house (her grandfather is Atlas) were in fact eons, which explains for Hayley why her grandmother's discipline felt so unendingly confining.

The book is well-written, and especially fun to read for fans of Greek mythology, although Baba Yaga makes an appearance as do other characters from folklore. What I learn from this let-down experience, and that of Dogsbody, is something about myself. As a fantasy reader, I want my protagonist to be an ordinary person (or dog) in extraordinary circumstances. I want the magic to be near them, around them, even part of them, but I don't want dogs and little girls to turn out to be stars and comets. I find it revealing myself to realize that I lose interest once the protagonist could not, by any stretch of improbability, be "me." The puzzle doesn't seem worth solving if I have to sit back and watch a supernatural protagonist solve her troubles using levels of capability well beyond that of mere mortals.

It's more than disappointing, though, because I end up feeling deceived. I came to like the character under false pretenses, and once the trick is revealed, reading the rest of the book is more of a mechanical who-fits-where in mythology than it is a revealing and meaningful journey. After all, can stars and comets grow and learn like people? Is it any wonder that Hayley is able to rescue her parents, Merope and Sisyphus, from Jupiter's traps? She's a comet... what can't they do???

I prefer my protagonists to be more real than exceptional, more human than supernatural, and more flawed and capable of growth than remote and perfect.

2 great books, 2 duds

Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
It's as though this book opens after all the typical YA romance books end. Lauren has the great football-player boyfriend and the popular best friend, but her life feels hollow. Until Evan comes back to town, Evan who was briefly a trial step-sibling thanks to one of Lauren's father's ill-advised bouts of shacking up with girlfriends. Evan knows her past, and what's more he makes her weak in the knees. Watching her weakness is part of the fun here, including that weakness that keeps her from breaking up with her official boyfriend like she should. It makes her more human that she can't bear to face her own feelings directly, and not until Evan's mother points out that her two-timing behavior is "just like your father" does Lauren realize that she has to make things right. Evan takes her as she is in the end, which makes this a satisfying story of a girl who seeks substance, hesitates when she finds it, but survives despite her own mistakes.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
This is the most engrossing piece of children's fiction I've read in a long time. Reynie Muldoon is a gifted child and an orphan who opts to take some "special tests" administered by a nameless organization. Of course, they're recruiting a team of 4 brilliant children in order to save the world from a villain who uses the school he calls the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened to do his evil work. The real thrills come not in the derring-do of our child heroes in the last chapters of the story, but along the way. For instance, during the tests, the 4 kids who will become our world-saving team each finds his/her own inimitable way to solve the puzzles set out before them. For example, while Sticky actually knows all the answers to one of the written tests, Raynie figures out that the test is in a kind of code and deciphers it that way. Similarly, there are physical challeges which Kate aces through her acrobatic prowess (she was raised in the circus) and Constance simply refuses to engage in that Raynie and Sticky navigate by finding loopholes in the instructions. It's rare that a book is so good that I refuse to give away the ending on my blog; usually I'm thinking more of my own record keeping than of my blog readers' pleasure. On this one, though, I'm going to be pretty circumspect. If you like puzzle books and mental challenges, this one's a must-read.

***duds below***

The following books were duds for me, this holiday reading spree. This is not to say that they are bad books, and in point of fact I didn't finish either of them, so my opinion probably shouldn't even be counted. However, I do like to keep track of what I read or try to read, so I'm recording my ill-informed reactions here. And now for my personal holiday duds:

Muddle Earth by Stewart and Riddell
I put this one down just now, after 2 days of making myself pick it up. If I were in the mood for a fantasy spoof with Monty Python humor, I'd read it, but I'm not. The one criticism I do have is that there are all these "secrets" that characters are constantly about to blurt out before being interrupted by other characters. And no one ever follows up... But it's clearly got some great humor, and I think if I were 11 I'd be absolutely sold. Still, it's my Thanksgiving and I get to read what I want. :P

Nacky Pratcher... by Jeffrey Kluger

It's possible that I'll want to give this one another shot... the BCCB gave it a star, after all, so it may be a Blue Ribbons contender for next year. For now, though, I'm putting it down. The tone is small-town, twee, and numbingly sincere in its cuteness. Not my style for now at least. Holidays are about escape reading! That book just makes me feel like I'm stuck at a family holiday gathering listening to pointless stories. I know, I know, some of you are thinking "Kate, I'm shocked that a storyteller like yourself doesn't appreciate her own family stories!" Well, all I can say is that narratives don't really make it out alive from a dysfunctional/alcoholic and other drugs/attention deficit disorder family like mine. The shreds of story that survive are typically nonsensical to outsiders and painful to insiders. You'll just have to trust me on this one.

Slam by Nick Hornby

I love Hornby's writing in general, and I learned why in the jacket flap copy of this book where a New Yorker reviewer called him "the maestro of the male confessional." That's why.

That said, this is not his best effort. Sam unwittingly becomes a 16-year-old father, just like his 32-year-old mother did in her time. The portrayal of the situation is realistic, with Sam spacing out when things get too emotionally tricky. However, the narrative itself invokes skater Tony Hawk and time travel in ways that are amusing for awhile, but ultimately distracting. I found the narrative really dragging when, after Sam has flashed forward to the future, we then arrive at that future and plod through the events again, albeit with a wiser Sam. The time travel felt like a device to show that he had grown rather than an organic component of the story. However, Sam's obsession with that incessant quotation from Tony Hawk's autobiography were convincing, reflecting the power of adolescent obsession.

I'd recommend it for Hornby (and male confessional) fans, but not for the general reader. If you're starting with Hornby, read About a Boy or High Fidelity instead.

2 new YA novels

I know, dear readers, that most of you who read me read because, well, you want good reads. I know because you've told me, so this one's for you:

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

This princess book is as cool and refreshing as its chick-lit counterparts are pink and frothy. Miri is a mountain girl who, along with all the other girls of the proper age in her village, are forced to attend Princess Academy. The Prince needs a bride, and his advisors have augured that she will come from Mount Eskel. Miri and her compatriots are treated like backwards idiots by the woman who runs the academy. Fortunately, they band together and outwit their oppressor. Unfortunately, bandits come to the mountain, and the princesses-in-training face mortal danger. All ends well in this magical story because Miri discovers the secrets of Mount Eskel's single export, linder stone, which in addition to being strong, light, and beautiful, is also capable of carrying the mountain dweller's thoughts to one another over long distances. Strongly recommended escapist reading for the holidays.

The Key to Rondo by Emily Rodda
Leo inherits a music box from his Great Aunt Bethany along with explicit instructions about how to let it play. As he examines the box, he is struck by the impossibly intricate detail of the paintings on the box. Fortunately for the reader (but unfortunately for Leo), his cousin Mimi breaks the rules, and the two of them find themselves in the land of Rondo, where Langlanders like himself are considered characters of old folk stories. The Blue Queen holds Mimi's dog Mutt ransom, and their perilous quest to her castle is plagued with uncertainty as they struggle to determine whom they can trust of those who offer to help. The world of Rondo is brought to a twee and creepy kind of life with such details as the "dots," little gingerbread men who swarm like cockroaches on any unattended food. Sequels are sure to follow, and Rodda's next efforts will certainly be worth reading.