Friday, February 10, 2017
The Prince and the Pauper by Samuel L Clemons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Prince and the Pauper
I don’t recall reading this as a child, which is too bad, as I think I would have loved it! I liked stories about knights and such, and while this isn’t specifically about knights, it does take place in “old England” and certainly transports the reader to that time and place.
Most people know the general idea of the story: a young street urchin and a prince (who happen to look alike) end up switching places, each living the life of the other for a few weeks. But maybe, like me, you are a little fuzzy on what exactly happens, and who, specifically, the titular prince is. (For instance, I always thought the swap in position was a deliberate, mutual undertaking - not so.) Clemens places the story at a specific time period, with an actual prince of England, Edward, son of Henry VIII. The author even uses footnotes for citations of actual events or practices of the time. And, as Clemens did with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he uses “dialect” to further immerse the reader into the time and locale of the story. In this case, the dialect is sort of a “King James English” with lots of “thee” and “thou” and the like. All of these things serve to make the story very realistic, even if the events might be a bit hard to swallow.
The story begins with a young boy, Tom Canty, who lives in a shack in Offal Lane. His father is an alcoholic abuser, and Tom lives a pretty rough life, as a result. But a priest took an interest in Tom, and taught him to read, so Tom escapes the cruelty of his real life with a vivid imagination. Tom loves nothing more than to imagine himself as a rich prince, living a life of ease and luxury. He is teased by his peers for this, but not severely so - his friends often join in his games of palace and royalty. Tom’s one goal in life is to see an actual, real life prince, so one day he goes to the palace to see if he can spot one. He runs afoul of one of the palace guards, who starts to beat him. Prince Edward sees this, and rushes out to Tom’s defense. He brings Tom inside, and the boys shyly start to get to know one another. They playfully swap clothes, and laugh at their identical looks. Events transpire that lead the prince to go outside, still in Tom’s clothes, where he is kicked out of the palace by the guard who first accosted Tom - the guard not believing the prince’s protestations as to his true identity. Thus begins the adventure for each boy, as each one learns to live in the strange world of the other.
Clemens doesn’t back off from the depredations and difficulties of being poor at that point in time. While he doesn’t go into details, there are beating, hangings, drunken parties, thieving, and so on. This is no happy-go-lucky poverty - this is the real, soul-crushing poverty, exacerbated by the laws of the time. Edward keeps insisting he is the prince, but, of course, no one believes him. He is befriended by a nobleman down on his luck, who takes pity on the poor “fool” and plays along with his “delusions” so as to not upset him. He hopes that by caring for Edward, he can eventually cure him of his madness. The prince encounters many rough characters, including Tom’s abusive father who is chasing him, thinking he is Tom who has run away. The prince’s eyes are opened as to the injustice of the laws, and vows to rectify this when he is returned to his throne.
We don’t spend quite as much time with Tom, who is attempting to fill the place of the prince. He knows he’s an imposter, but at first feels like he owes the real prince the duty to fill his place as well as possible. Later, Tom begins to really enjoy the life of luxury, and hardly thinks of the prince any more. We see his attempts to act princely, and his mistakes are chalked up to a temporary mental illness, that the palace staff hope he eventually gets over. The staff are all told not to mention Tom’s gaffes, but to gently guide him when he seems lost as to what to do.
Eventually, events transpire to bring Edward back to the palace, and he regains his throne. Tom is cared for financially, the prince (now the king) enacts better laws, and the nobleman who befriended him is restored to his estate. It’s a nice happy ending!
I think that any child would enjoy this book, though the dialect may be a bit hard for them. The depiction of life in poverty would be a good teaching tool. I can imagine lots of good lessons coming from this book, if a parent or teacher were so inclined.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a graphic novel adaptation of the Neil Gaiman story of the same title, first appearing in a short story collection in 2004. I remember reading the short story, and thinking it was quite clever, and kind of a cute idea. I didn’t really think about it being adapted into graphic novel format, but it lends itself nicely to a visual medium.
The story is about a writer, working away at his desk. We “see” what he is writing, depicted in monochrome panels with a script font. His story is what we would consider a classic “gothic” tale, with a young woman arriving alone in the dead of night (in the middle of a storm, of course) at a creepy house. Our writer keeps getting interrupted, however, with his own rather gothic bits of life instances: a dark and brooding butler, a talking raven, etc. The author is convinced his story is rubbish, but he wants to write about “real life” and be a “serious” author. He is finally convinced to go with his heart, and write a fantasy story, and the results are not what one expects, and give us a humorous ending.
The style of the images work very well with the story, giving us creepy ghouls, scary castles, etc. The trick of using monochrome vs. full color, and script font vs. block print is a convenient way to let readers know when we are in the world of the author’s story vs. the “real world.” This is a stellar example of how a graphic novel is not just an illustrated story - a good graphic artist is able to actually tell the story utilizing visual constructs. (A note on the letterer - it is the excellent Todd Klein, who does many of Gaiman’s graphic novels.) In this one volume, we have a trifecta of artists - illustrator, author, letterer - all at the top of their game. The result is a book that both Gaiman fans and graphic novel fans will want to read over and over again.
Friday, January 13, 2017
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review is for books one and two in this collection: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. I will add the subsequent books as I finish them.
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, NK Jemisin has created an amazing world and mythology. In the beginning, we are introduced to Yiene, a young woman who lives in a “barbaric” northern kingdom, who is summoned to the ruling kingdom where she learns she must compete for the inheritance of the crown with her two cousins. Yiene’s mother left before Yiene was born and was disinherited, but for some reason her grandfather (the current ruler) has brought Yiene back. Yiene is definitely a fish out of water, as she is thrown into cutthroat politics, both human and divine.
In this world, there is a ruling god, Itempas the Bright, who was once one of three ruling gods. But long ago there was a war among the gods, and Enefa, the goddess of dawn and twilight, was destroyed - and Nahadoth, the god of Darkness and Chaos has been enslaved to the human ruling family. There are also many demigods, who are the children of the original three. But now, only Itempas is worshipped, and those who try to worship the other gods are branded heretics.
Into this mix of gods, demigods, and humans, Yiene must discover her past, so that she can survive her present.
Jemisin doesn’t go easy on the reader - we are thrown into the main narrative, and we only get the backstory as Yiene uncovers it, and through some (at first) confusing conversations Yiene is having with someone - we don’t find out who for quite some time. This slow unwinding of the story made it difficult, at first, for me to really get into the character of Yiene and become emotionally invested. But by about midway through the book, the past becomes clearer, and the trap in which Yiene finds herself is revealed. From this point onward, I was hooked, and sped through the rest of the book.
Jemisin’s brilliance is revealed not just in the world building and plot, but in her depiction of the gods and demigods. Her depiction of them, both physically and through their actions, feels right - the gods don’t act like humans at all, but their actions seem consistent with their being. Picture Greek or Roman gods, mingling with humans, having their own jealousies and spats, but not being human. Really well done!
Now, from this description you might be thinking this is just another “young person discovers their secret destiny” story - nothing could be further from the truth. The narrative is wholly original, as are the characters. (Though I couldn’t help comparing the ruling family to the worst of corrupt ancient Roman emperors.) The entire world is unlike anything I’ve experienced in literature. If you want to get swallowed up by something entirely new in fantasy, this is the place to start.
This is the review for book two (The Broken Kingdoms) - there will be spoilers if you haven’t read book one (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms).
Wow! I practically devoured this book! I was captivated by the character of Oree from the very beginning, and simply could not put it down. Superb writing!
The narrative of this book begins 10 years after the events of the first book. The new goddess - the Gray Lady (who was the mortal Yeine in the first book) is now part of pantheon, taking the place (rebirthing?) Enefa. Nahadoth, the lord of darkness and chaos, has been freed from his captivity, and Intempas the Bright is now wandering the world in mortal flesh, sentenced to pay for his sins of killing Enefa and imprisoning Nahadoth.
The story starts in a far kingdom, where Oree Shoth, a young woman who is blind, lives with her parents. Even though she is blind, she can “see” magic when it manifests in the world, and she paints strange and wonderful pictures that her father tells her to keep hidden. She is close to her father, who has a gift of singing that he keeps hidden - he only sings for Oree, when they are alone. But like most young people, Oree feels trapped in her family and her country, and heads for the “big city” - in this case that means Sky, the place where most of book one occurred.
Sky has been transformed by the growth of The Lady’s tree, which manifested when she transformed into a goddess. The tree encompasses all of Sky, both on the ground and in the air. Oree lives and works in the shadow of Sky, where she sells her handmade trinkets to the pilgrims who come to worship the new goddess. She also continues to paint, but these creations she shows to no one, and does not sell. She has made friends, and even had a lover, named Madding, for a while - a lover who is a “godling”, one of many who are now free after the events of 10 years ago, though they are constrained to live and work in Sky. She now shares her home with a silent man she literally pulled from a garbage bin. Their relationship is purely platonic, and since she doesn’t know his name, she calls him Shiny, because he has the strange trait of glowing when the sun rises. He also has a tendency to accidentally injure himself or even kill himself through carelessness, but he always comes back to life the next day.
Events unfold quickly from this point on. Someone is killing godlings, and as Oree found one of the bodies, she comes to the attention of the religious officials. This escalates to her fleeing, and finding safety in Madding’s house. But the safety is short-lived, and Oree finds herself in a situation that seems to have no resolution. At this point she learns a rather surprising fact of her heritage, and becomes even more entangled in power plays between the divine and the mortal.
Jemisin has a real knack for the portrayal of the gods and godlings. They do not have human motivations or feelings, but these are consistent among them, making their personalities seem quite believable. I also found that I could identify with Oree right away, unlike my experience with Yeine in the first book. This, coupled with the nearly nonstop action meant that I read this book in two days!
There are overarching themes that continue from the first book. Though you could read this one alone, reading book one first will definitely enhance the story.
The events of this book take place several years after the last one. It is told in the first person, by the gosling, Sieh, whom we know from the first two books. He is the Trickster, and also the god of childhood and play. He befriends twin siblings, a boy and a girl (Deka and Shahar), children of the ruling “queen” of the Arameri family (the ruling family on the planet.) The three of them make a pact to be “friends forever” and then something cataclysmic happens. Sieh awakens years later, to discover that he is mortal, and, more importantly, he is aging. His body is already that of a teenager, which is anathema to his very being as the god of childhood. He discovers that Deka has been exiled to the school of scriveners (magicians) and Shahar is being groomed as her mother’s heir and the next ruler of the planet. More importantly, he discovers that deep unrest is growing around the planet, and someone is killing Arameri family members, through the use of magical masks. Sieh must try to help Shahar and Deka try to prevent planetary war, while at the same time navigating his maturity, which happens by leaps and bounds, so that he is aging far faster than a mere mortal. Much of the book is Sieh simply trying to understand what is happening to him, and why, which makes this book seem quite personal. Even though the first two books each focused on a single character, somehow what is happening to Sieh seems more intense and personal. Not only is he facing the normal emotions of growing up, he is trying to cope with the fact that his very nature is changing. The plot of the civil unrest and threat of war is quite engaging, and events transpire that leave the planet even more changed than that of the previous book.
For me, this story engaged me from the get-go. Sieh is a fascinating character, and being in his mind as he navigates the pitfalls of what has happened to him, along with what was happening planet-wide, kept me riveted. I felt like the events that transpired were natural to the story as a whole, and the way the gods interacted with each other and with humans continued to be consistent and ring true to the world Jemisin has created. The ending was somewhat surprising, and extremely intense! A good way to end the series.
This novella is quite different in style from the first three books, though it also captivated me from the very first. It’s basically a stream of consciousness story about the “rebirth” or “recreation” of Sieh - or at least a godling who takes Sieh’s place, as part of the theme of the story is this gosling’s attempts to discover who s/he is. It’s a delightful little story, which adds the cherry on top to the ice cream sundae of the series.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
An Alabama Christmas by Truman Capote
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I’m a sucker for Christmas books and stories. It probably started in childhood with How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and has just grown over the years. Every Christmas, I not only reread the Grinch Book, but also Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth, and usually some other Christmas books and stories. When I saw this book at a used book store, I just had to have it to add to my collection of Christmas reading. Boy, was I disappointed!!
First of all, the quality of the writing of most of these stories is about what I’d expect to see from a Writing 101 course - half-fulfilled ideas, stilted prose, and even poor grammar!! (For example, using “loose” instead of “lose”.) The only two selections that rose above this were those by Helen Keller and Truman Capote, but even these stories lacked much emotion. I like my Christmas stories to tug at my heartstrings, and these failed to do so, though the Keller story was at least interesting. Some of the stories weren’t half bad, but there wasn’t really any one that made me want to keep this book for rereading.
But these complaints are not what earns this book a one-star rating. No, this book deserves the worst rating because of the story “Christmas on the Old Plantation” by Idora McClellan Moore. This story relates what the author believes is a warm, nostalgic Christmas on a Southern plantation. But the story is full of such awful stereotypes that I had to wonder if I’d been transported back in time to the 1800’s!! There’s the white family who owns the plantation, who magnanimously allows the blacks on the plantation to come to the “big house” on Christmas day to each receive a token gift. There’s the description of the “childlike” blacks celebrating in their own style, and the horrible ways the blacks are portrayed as serving their white “masters” - though, at least the author was aware enough not to call them masters, but it was evident in context. The whole story just turned my stomach.
Do not buy this book. Do not read this book. It’s a waste of your time. There are MUCH better Christmas books out there!