Dear Susan Cooper,

January 21, 2010

The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper – 232 pages

“When Will Stanton wakes up on the morning of his birthday, he discovers an unbelievable gift — he is immortal. Bemused and terrified, he finds he is the last of the Old Ones, magical men and women sworn to protect the world from the source of evil, the Dark.

At once Will is plunged into a quest to find six magical Signs to aid the powers of the Light. Six medallions — iron, bronze, wood, water, fire, and stone — created and hidden by the Old Ones centuries ago. But the Dark has sent out the Rider: evil cloaked in black, mounted upon a midnight stallion, and on the hunt for this youngest Old One, Will. He must find the six great Signs before the Dark can rise, for an epic battle between good and evil approaches.”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

Greenwitch – Susan Cooper – 148 pages

“The Dark has stolen an object of great power — a golden grail that holds a vital secret. Will embarks on a new quest to reclaim the grail, and to drive back the Dark once again. But first he will need the help of three former grail seekers: Jane, Simon, and Barney Drew.

Learning to work together, they must take back the grail and retrieve the missing manuscript that unlocks its mystical secret. But the manuscript is located at the bottom of the sea, and their only hope of obtaining both grail and script is entangled in the mysterious ritual of the Greenwitch….”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

The Grey King – Susan Cooper – 224 pages

“With the final battle between the Light and the Dark soon approaching, Will sets out on a quest to call for aid. Hidden within the Welsh hills is a magical harp that he must use to wake the Sleepers – six noble riders who have slept for centuries.

But an illness has robbed Will of nearly all his knowledge of the Old Ones, and he is left only with a broken riddle to guide him in his task. As Will travels blindly through the hills, his journey will bring him face-to-face with the most powerful Lord of the Dark – the Grey King. The King holds the harp and Sleepers within his lands, and there has yet to be a force strong enough to tear them from his grasp…”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

Though it might be a little overwhelming to read, I thought it might be more logical to write about these three installations in The Dark is Rising Sequence all at once (since I read them mostly in a row).

After Over Sea, Under Stone, I was intrigued but still not entirely certain I was going to love this series as much as people said I should.  Still, I tried to keep an open mind, and was rewarded reading The Dark is Rising.  I found I liked Will much more than I liked the Drew children–he had more of a mind of his own, was a little less childlike and, being an Old One, was rather more precocious than the Drews.  I always enjoy that in protagonists, and Will was very endearing.  I liked his spunk, and this book kept me on the edge of my seat much more than the first.  I also found that I didn’t mind the sensation that I was reading well-used fantasy tropes; again, perhaps at the time this was written, they weren’t so well-used, but in any case Will’s strength as a character cast the whole plot in a more enjoyable light.  Five stars for this one, yay Will!!

Greenwitch was something of a mix for me.  The presence of Will in the story again was delightful, though I found myself wishing it were told from his perspective; still, from a writing standpoint I understand why it was told instead through the eyes of the Drew children.  I liked them better in this one–perhaps because they got smarter, got used to danger and the mysteries surrounding them, and perhaps because I found the plot of this book to be especially intriguing.  The Greenwitch itself was fascinating; the bit about its construction reminded me a bit of the sort of sacred, nature-oriented magic and mystery of The Mists of Avalon and its many companion books, and the parts that happened underwater brought to mind Diane Duane’s Deep Wizardry.  Overall,  think that since the Drews finally started to grow on me in this book, it gets five stars.

Of course, I should have known that a series this famous and well-loved would only keep getting better, and The Grey King proved it to me.  I mean, wow!  Talk about suspense.  And Will is fantastic in this book, I love him even more than before.  You’ve succeeded in creating danger that felt really real to me, too, which is sometimes hard to accomplish.  Sure, I can get invested in fantasy danger, but it takes a special kind of threat to make me actually get nervous and rush through pages because I have to know if the protagonist makes it out okay.  That’s what this book did to me.  I’m actually sort of putting off reading the final book, because this one was so enjoyable, and it’ll be nice to go back to this series after reading some other stuff to draw the experience out a little!  Five stars once again, and I look forward to reviewing the final book!

Love,

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Dear Nahoko Uehashi, Cathy Hirano and Yuko Shimizu,

January 14, 2010

Moribito II:  Guardian of the Darkness – Nahoko Uehashi, trans. Cathy Hirano, illust. Yuko Shimizu – 272 pages

“For many years, through countless fights, Balsa has survived. The evil King Rogsam tried to kill her when she was only six. Eight assassins pursued her in the long flight that followed. But her mentor, Jiguro, protected her until his death, and then Balsa became a bodyguard herself, helping other people survive the challenges they face. When she returns to her native country of Kanbal, she hopes to see Jiguro’s family and her own for the first time in many years. But what should be a simple visit of truth and reconciliation becomes a fight for her life when she learns that King Rogsam framed Jiguro for the deaths of the eight assassins—as well as a crime that threatens the very existence of Kanbal. With the help of two Kanbalese children, Balsa must unwind the conspiracy surrounding Jiguro and the mystery of the Guardians of the Darkness, before it’s too late.”  –from ArthurALevineBooks.com

Ever since I picked up the first Moribito, Balsa has been a personal heroine who remains very close to my heart.  I think part of it is that though Moribito and now Moribito II are definitely YA, Balsa herself is very close to me in age.  She’s a young woman who isn’t old enough to settle down with the childhood friend who loves her, and who still has a lot of journeying to do before she figures out what she’s doing with herself, but she also isn’t young enough to be carefree.  In the first book, she started as a bodyguard to a runaway child prince, and wound up a little more maternal than I think she might have planned; in Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, she must face her past and shoulder the responsibility of redeeming her family and her dead sensei and guardian.  She walks the line between typical YA heroine and grown-up really nicely, in a way I can really identify with.

Anyway, I love Balsa, and I think by writing through a nearing-30-year-old protagonist, you’re capturing a kind of story that wouldn’t necessarily happen otherwise.  I read YA partly because I love stories of teens saving the day and doing things on their own and being capable, but this has a different (and entirely pleasant) feel.  That said, I wonder how Balsa comes off to a teen audience–do they care that she’s almost thirty?  Would someone who isn’t 27 herself not find it different?  I wonder.

This is turning into a very long ramble, but it’s because I really like this book, I love Balsa, and I find the translation really interesting.  I’m sure I’ve said this before, but there’s a certain quality of storytelling in YA I’ve read translated from Japanese that I find different from American YA lit, and I don’t know if it’s just the way any Japanese prose is when translated to English, or if it’s specific to what I’ve read…but it’s always a really different experience, sort of distant but still totally engaging at the same time.  Also, let’s not forget, the art was just as breathtaking in this volume as it was in the first–the whole design of the book is beautiful, and I want to shove it in the faces of everyone who owns a Kindle and say “here, look at this, can you get this on a machine?”

So, without a doubt, five stars again for you three and for Balsa!

Love,

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Dear Mem Fox and Leo and Diane Dillon,

December 2, 2009

The Goblin and the Empty Chair – Mem Fox and Leo & Diane Dillon – 32 pages

The goblin hides his face and keeps to himself, so as not to frighten anyone–but when he stumbles upon a suffering farm family, he helps ease their load by night, in secret.  The goblin doesn’t realize that the family has seen his efforts until they offer their thanks in the best way they can.

Whew, it was hard to summarize this book without giving too much away.  The Goblin and the Empty Chair is just the sort of evocative story I’d expect from this particular collaboration, and the perfect book to get me back into the swing of regular reviewing.  The prose is masterful, simple and repetitive without being boring or babyish, with an air of mystery and a lot of subtlety; the art picks up all sorts of hints and cues from the text and brings them fully to life, while adding story of its own.  A really good picturebook is a mixture of art and text that don’t tell the whole story when separated, and you’ve created a perfect example of that!

Of course, it helps that I’m a sucker for stories about humble tragic heroes and human kindness, which is just what this one is, and I’m also a huge Dillon fan.  The little girl reminds me pleasantly of Wise Child, and I love the little friezes along the tops of the illustrations, and the whole thing is just an achievement in visual/textual storytelling.  You all rock my socks.  Five stars!

Oh, and this reading of the book is just AWESOME–but I wish those great friezes were shown along with the main illustrations!  This would have made a great Reading Rainbow book.  (LeVar, I miss you on tv.)

Love,

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Books this year: 99

Pages this year: 19,962


Dear Carolyn Turgeon,

September 25, 2009

GodmotherGodmother: The Secret Cinderella Story – Carolyn Turgeon – 288 pages

“Lil is an old woman who spends her days shelving rare books in a tiny Manhattan bookstore and lonely nights at home in her apartment. But Lil has an intriguing secret. Tucked and bound behind her back are white feathery wings–the only key to who she once was: the fairy godmother responsible for getting Cinderella to the ball to unite with her Prince Charming. … But then one day she meets Veronica–a young, fair-skinned, flame-haired East Village beauty with a love of all things vintage and a penchant for falling in love with the wrong men–and suddenly it becomes clear to Lil that she’s been given a chance at redemption. If she can find a soul mate for Veronica, she may right her wrong and return to the fairy world she so deeply longs for….”  -Random House website

I’ve been lazy with the writing of plot summaries lately, but when the publisher’s website does it well, who am I to resist?  At any rate, Godmother was a mixed bag for me.  When I read the description I quoted above, it sounds like something I’d want to read–and it was along the right lines.  You had some elements, like the fairies’ underwater home, that were unique and surprising.  Your prose was generally lovely, too, and you did a great job with crafting some mystery around Lil and revealing only little bits of back story at a time.  The flow and the organization was good, and I was with you.  Then I hit the “twist” at the end, and the whole thing was soured for me.  You pulled an Alice in Wonderland, and I felt tricked, like I’d been denied what could have been a genuinely interesting fantasy novel or (with some changes) a fascinating novel about the human psyche.  It turned out to be neither, and I was pretty disappointed.

Even so, I don’t like to end a review on a bad note.  I rather enjoyed myself up until the end, and I can see why people who aren’t me might appreciate the twist.  Three stars in my opinion, but as always, that’s just my opinion.

Love,

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Books this year: 95

Pages this year: 18,442


Dear Holly Lisle,

September 21, 2009

Moon and Sun Book 1:  The Ruby KeyMoon and Sun Book 1:  The Ruby Key – Holly Lisle – 384 pages

“Human and Nightlings are never to meet, but when Genna and her brother Dan venture into the old forest at night, they encounter a Nightling slave who reveals a terrifying secret: Genna and Dan’s village chieftain has made a dangerous deal with Letrin, ruler of the Nightlings, offering the lives of his people in exchange for his own immortality. To save the villagers and themselves, Genna and Dan strike their own bargain with the Nightling lord, but the stakes are even higher. Now, the siblings must embark upon a journey along the Moonroads, and bring back the key to Letrin’s downfall.”  –Scholastic online store

I’ll be totally honest here–I picked up The Ruby Key because the cover art was appealing, particularly the waifish fairy girl.  Covers really do matter!  I judge books by them all the time!  At any rate, it looked like something I would enjoy, and I was totally right.  You’ve pulled together this really interesting mood that starts out sort of The Village-or-Forest of Hands and Teeth-esque, and then it sort of morphs into this slightly weirder Campbellian journey.  The Moonroads reminded me a little bit of the Abhorsen walking around in Death, or perhaps of the path through the clock to the Red Bull’s lair in The Last Unicorn.  Still, though it reminds me favorably of other things, the idea of traveling roads that most people can’t see is mysterious and thrilling in its own unique way–a nice twist  on the traveling.

Also, as one might expect from the first book in a series, it had an unfinished feel to me.  I think there wasn’t quite enough time between the solving of Book 1’s main conflict and the beginning of the new conflict that I presume Book 2 will tackle.  I needed a little more time to feel relieved, and like the story had ended, before you sprung the next problem on me.  Of course, that didn’t prevent me from groaning aloud and then scouring the internet for news of when the next book would be coming out!  I think you’ve got a good mix of fantasy elements here without the story feeling like it’s been done before, and also a great mix of characters and a lot of confusion and suspense about who to trust.  I like that quite a lot!  Well done, you get a solid four stars.

Love,

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Books this year: 93

Pages this year: 17,978


Dear Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Alton Raible,

September 12, 2009

Season of PoniesSeason of Ponies – Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Alton Raible- 133 pages

Pamela has been stuck at Oak Farm since she was small, living with her two aunts while her salesman father travels.  She can remember a time before that, when she went along with him everywhere, and a time even longer ago when her mother was alive.  Now, left behind again, summer on the farm seems endless and stifling.  Even the mystical-looking amulet her father gave her, a present from her great-grandmother from before she was born, doesn’t seem to be having any effect–until Pamela hears a flute playing a wild melody, and goes to the window to see a herd of pale, delicately beautiful ponies and a boy who rides with them through the mist.  Perhaps the amulet has brought some adventure to Pamela’s summer after all….

I got so excited thinking about Season of Ponies while I was reviewing The Bronze Pen that I had to read it again!  So I took a few hours when I should have been washing the dishes, or maybe even sleeping, and instead revisited one of my most vivid childhood book memories.  This story has been a part of my personal mythology since I was ten, when I found it at a RIF sale in the school gym (thank goodness for those!), and it was just as good now as it always has been.  I’ll admit, I’m a horse lover, so the ponies have an added appeal for me; I even collect little blown-glass horses like the ones Pamela has in the book, and always think of you when I get a new one.  Still, there’s something about the timeless mystery of adventures in a forest, the petulant and wild Ponyboy and the dreamlike quality of the whole story that sucks the reader in and won’t let go.  The fantastical illustrations, even just in black and white, complete the whole evocative package to make a read that’s on my list of classics, even if nobody else agrees.  You’re both my heroes.  Thanks for making magic possible.  Five stars, and I hope this title comes back into print with a cool new cover, like The Witches of Worm and The Egypt Game have.

Love,

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Books this year: 92

Pages this year: 17,594


Dear Zilpha Keatley Snyder,

September 10, 2009

The Bronze PenThe Bronze Pen – Zilpha Keatley Snyder – 208 pages

Audrey wants to be a writer, but she keeps her dream (and her stories) a secret from her ill father and overworked mother.  When Audrey starts writing stories with the new pen given to her by a mysterious old woman, strange things start to happen–talking dogs, dragons under the bed, even a kidnapping by pirates!  Audrey must learn to use the pen “wisely and to good purpose,” as the old woman instructed in order to put things right again.

I’ve been reading and re-reading your books with fervent adoration since I was a kid combing the library shelves; my copies of Season of Ponies, The Witches of Worm and The Egypt Game are particularly worn and well-loved.  Your work always seemed to wrap me up and suck me in, surrounding me in this blanket of mystery and enchantment…that sounds kind of silly, but that’s how I always felt, like I might turn a corner and something magic would happen.  So when I saw The Bronze Pen on the shelf at the store, I just had to bring it home, and read it with high hopes.  I have to say, though, that this one didn’t do it for me the way some of your others always have.

I think the problem is that too much remains a mystery.  Who is the mysterious old woman/voice in the cave?  Where does the pen come from?  How does it relate to Audrey’s grandmother (I think it was her grandmother), who told stories about a white duck?  I presume it’s the same white duck that leads Audrey to the cave to get the pen, but it was just a little too mysterious–I wanted more back story.  I hate to say it, but I kind of felt like you phoned this one in.  It wasn’t bad, certainly, but it wasn’t glittering and totally absorbing and REAL the way your best fantasies are.  I didn’t believe it, and that made it a little dull.  Still, I think it’s a good read for the middle grade fantasy-loving crowd–it’s got enough adventure, danger, and well-crafted prose to keep the reader reading.  Three stars for this one, mostly because it fades in comparison to your other work.  It’s okay, you’re still one of my personal goddesses.  😀

Love,

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Books this year: 91

Pages this year: 17,461