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Review: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

January 1, 2014 1 comment

Mixed UpThe start of the new year is often a time for reflection or nostalgia.  From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a throwback to some of the books I read in elementary school. I remember being mesmerized by the idea that two elementary school aged kids could run off to New York City and hide out in a museum for over a week.

I decided to reread the book based on two events recently that brought the book to my attention. First, I completed a Facebook meme that asked readers to list 10 books that were in some way memorable, influential, or just meaningful to the reader even if they might not be fine literature. From the Mixed-Up Files was one of the books that immediately came to mind to me. The second event was a Wikipedia reference in a movie article that mentioned that two adaptations were made of the book; I wasn’t aware that it had ever been made into a movie.

The plot itself is wrapped in a frame story written by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In it, two children, Claudia and her brother Jamie, run away to New York City and hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia’s initial intention is to escape the “injustice” she perceives at home, but she eventually realizes that her real goal is to experience something new and come home changed. She brings her young brother along because he is extremely “rich” — having about $25 saved up. During their stay in the museum, in which they must deal with security, find a place to sleep, ensure that they can eat, do laundry, and discover additional means of funding, they determine to uncover a mystery of who sculpted a newly acquired sculpture.

For me, one of the most memorable scenes, which has stayed with me for (gasp!) 30 years, is the use of the museum restaurant’s fountain in order to bathe. In it, they discover that patrons have thrown wishing coins, which help to fund their stay a bit longer.

The adventures are simple and the book is quite short, but it is easy to see why it was awarded a Newberry. The banter between the siblings — grammar corrections by a self-satisfied older sister and squabbles over how money is to be spent — is clever and not stilted. The two children are portrayed as uniquely different individuals with different personalities and goals.

Does the book hold up to 2014 vs 1967? In large part, I think yes. The children are not dumbed down nor are they portrayed as adult surrogates. The advent of cell-phones, internet searches, and heightened security concerns are probably the areas of most difference from current day. But the only jarring item is the value of money — having lunch for 75 cents, for example, and surviving in NYC for over a week with little more than $25.

 

4 out of 5 stars (finished January 1, 2014)

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Currently reading:  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Review: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

These are some belated notes on The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which I made back in April, but am just posting now.

I was very underwhelmed by the story and the series got worse as it went on.

  • I didn’t buy the main plot point of using children for the games and glorifying their deaths.  I could buy something closer to The Running Man with criminals, but not children.
  • I did think it was a good move to have some breaks in time between the books — it doesn’t have to be a continuous narrative
  • I appreciated the fact that not all characters are going to make it through alive (although I’m not sure there were any characters that I cared enough about)
  • The world building, for me, was too light. A bit of mystery left to the imagination is good but I would have liked to have seen a few more glimpses into how things got to be how they were.
  • The second book was essentially a rehash of the first, just worse.  The plot for book three was messy, chaotic (not in a good way) and seemed to just fizzle out as if the author ran out of ideas and just decided to stop.
  • The love triangle was weak.  It went on so long and so angst-y, that I didn’t care anymore.
  • For me, it’s easier to read first person narratives with the main character being male, which may be one reason that female readers (including those that may not typically read in the genre) may find it appealing.
  • So many of the characters had little depth to them.
  • I liked the idea of some of the Machiavellian politics and intrigue, but thought it was underdeveloped in the books
  • I think the author needed to introduce a bit of humor from time to time
  • What might be interesting is if the author wrote a few additional books or short stories from another point of view — perhaps President Snow, one of the gamemasters, or just someone else in the know — and find out that much of what Katniss though was going on is actually wrong à la the Ender books (Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow are prime examples) by Orson Scott Card.

I haven’t seen the movies yet and might watch the first one if it shows up on Netflix Instant.

Average 2 out of 5 stars (finished April 2011)

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Review: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

February 20, 2011 2 comments

This is the second time that I’ve read Eragon by Christopher Paolini.  I’d had a poor response to the book the first time I read it, but with several more recent recommendations, I decided to give it another shot.  After this re-read, I suspect that I had listened to an abridged version of the book, rather than the full text, since this time I felt that it had more depth.

Essentially the book is standard epic fantasy fare:

  • young boy whose parents are, or presumed to be, dead is more than he seems
  • wise, old mentor trains the boy but is eventually killed before training is complete
  • telepathic bond with a magical creature (in this case, a dragon)
  • a quest and a sword
  • a dramatic battle at the end

But for all of that, it’s still an enjoyable read, although it clearly has derivative roots in The Lord of the Rings and the Dragon novels of Anne McCaffrey, among others.

Some of its strong points:

  • Eragon himself exhibits some flaws.  He overreaches, he forgets previous lessons, and he becomes, for a short time, consumed with hate for revenge.
  • There are multiple factions within the “good guys”.  Often, the side for good is too united, which is perhaps a bit naive.  The rebel Varden are strained by tensions between the elves, the dwarves, the magic users, and those following the Varden leader, Ajihad.
  • I really enjoyed the characters of Brom and Murtagh, who again have more depth in their personalities and histories than a first novel might have.
  • I was touched by one early scene where a young Saphira (a newly hatched dragonling) is compelled to stay at a remote location and essentially leashed up in a tree for safety.  Her straining at the leash, not quite understanding why Eragon had to leave her was quite real to me.

There were a few areas, however, that were not as well developed.  For example, other than a few references in the book, Paolini was oddly silent on the tight bond between Eragon and his dragon Saphira.  Other novels using a telepathic, almost predestined, pairing of human and animal explore the emotional link much more clearly — and each separation from one another causes a painful tearing of their souls.

Plot-wise, I had two complaints:

  • The early wanderings to find the Ra’zac who killed his uncle seems quite random and not fully conceived, almost as if there had been a change in plot during the writing of the book.  I also thought the relative lack of clues to the passage of time hurt the novel a bit, since it was difficult to truly buy into Eragon’s education in swordplay, in magic, and even to read.  It was quite late in the novel by the time Eragon reflects that six months had passed since finding Saphira’s egg.
  • The final portion of the novel from the time that Eragon enters the valley of the Varden to the final conflict seems somewhat over lengthy and perhaps a bit underwhelming.  The pace might have been better if the Urgals had arrived literally on their heels and the battle fought immediately.

The ending is well set up for the next volume, which I plan to read soon, since I suspect that Paolini will be more original in some of the plot devices.

(btw, the movie is OK, but the detail and motivations in the book are better)

4 stars out of 5 (finished February 19, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,  Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr, & Starship:  Mutiny by Mike Resnick

 

 

Review: So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

This book starts off with a wonderful conceit:  a young girl, who seems to somewhat of a loner, ducks into the local library to escape notice of a bully.  There among the shelves, she lovingly touches the spines of dozens of books which she’s already read until she spies one that she’s never seen before.  The title reads, “So You Want to be a Wizard,” seemingly one of the myriad career books for kids.  Intrigued, she takes it home and finds that the volume is absolutely serious.  She can become a wizard, if she’s willing to pay the price.

She soon discovers that there is a whole unseen universe, where the trees recount their ancient battles with evil, where wizards protect the fabric of reality, and where young wizard apprentices must prove their mettle in service of good…. or possibly perish in the attempt.

Together with Kit, a neighbor boy who has also just recently taken the wizard’s oath, Nita must save the universe from being unmade.

I found the first scenes totally charming, since I can easily remember knowing each book on the library shelves and voraciously reading each one, sometimes one or two a day.  And, the author suggests that if you haven’t yet seen this book in your library, then you just may not be suited to wield the power.

The book is set near and in New York City and, frankly, it was shocking to see a reference to the Twin Towers.

One of the most interesting characters is that of “Fred”, a bright speck of light who is “accidentally” (there are no accidents) brought to earth via one of Kit and Nina’s first spells.  It turns out that Fred is actually a white hole whose mass is temporary stored elsewhere.  Fred provides many of the diversions by emitting large objects, mini-explosions, and light, but also supplies much of the humor due to his unfamiliarity with Earth (“….Schenectady.”  “Is that another world?”  “Nearly.”)  and also references to his elemental parts (“My gnaester will never be the same.” — after emitting some particularly large objects).

A jarring incident occurs early in the book as the two kids visit the local wizard advisories.  One of the advisories has a familiar, an exotic bird, who can foretell the future but seems very reluctant to do so.  To “encourage” the bird to speak, the advisory clenches his fit and punches the bird, and then threatens to do so again later if he doesn’t behalf.  This sounds both cruel and completely out of character for wizards who are protecting life.  I just don’t get it.

For me, the book had a few other inelegant parts, particularly as the three pass into another universe to find a book which names all things, and it doesn’t seem as fully realized as others I’ve read.  But, it was still enjoyable nonetheless.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished February 11, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, & Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr

Drowned Wednesday by Garth Nix

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The third installment of The Keys to the Kingdom series, Drowned Wednesday, sweeps both Arthur Penhaligon and his newly met friend Leaf into the Border Sea of the House via a huge wave of water.  There, Leaf must become a ship’s boy and Arthur must find the third part of the Will and collect the third key from Drowned Wednesday, who has become a leviathan due to the vice of gluttony.

Drowned Wednesday has invited Arthur into the Border Sea, telling him that if he can release the Will, she’ll turn over the key.  The problem is that no one really knows where it is.

Arthur and Leaf are assisted in their quest by Raised Rats, who are sentient, intelligent rats who were brought into the House by the Piper (cf. Pied Piper of Hamelin) along with human children from the Secondary Realms like Earth.  These Raised Rats are information gatherers and have communication devices throughout the House.  And, it is they who believe they know where the Will is, and might be persuaded to help if Arthur will answer a few of their questions.

Like the other books, Nix adds interesting color through the denizens and creatures of the House.  Doctor Scamandros, a House sorcerer whose final examination papers were lost before the results were known, is one of the only sorcerers on the Border Sea.  Tattoos across his face change and move with his emotions and moods, changing from storm-tossed sailing vessels to calm seas.

I found that I liked this book a bit less than the previous ones as it didn’t seem to delve deeply enough into the mysteries of the House.

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished December 11, 2010)

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Grim Tuesday by Garth Nix

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Garth Nix continues his series, The Keys to the Kingdom, with Grim Tuesday, a direct sequel to Mister Monday (see my comments here).

Only a few hours after returning from the House and obtaining a cure for the sleepy plague which was spreading through his home town, Arthur Penhaligon, the Rightful Heir, must return to the House to wrest the second key from the next Trustee, Grim Tuesday.

Unlike the first domain of the bureaucracy, the Far Reaches is made up of indentured miners and craftsman.  Nothing is a mined substance which can be crafted into all sorts of useful items for the House, from Metal Commissionaires to teapots; but, Nothing is also a corrosive substance into which the entire House could fall and be destroyed.  Greedy and acquisitive Grim Tuesday is a master craftsman but sadly lacks a creative spark in himself; instead he can only copy works (beautiful though they may be) from the Secondary Realms, such as Earth.

Arthur becomes an indentured servant and is forced to walk a long road to the Pit.  His faithful companion, Suzy Turquoise Blue from his first adventure, helps him to reach Tuesday’s treasure tower, where priceless gems and works of art are housed.  From there, Arthur must find and free the second part of the Will of the Architect and take Tuesday’s key.

One character that I particularly enjoyed was the Mariner, who appears to be vaguely based on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Although constrained by his word to obey Grim Tuesday, he appears very noble and is a refreshing straight talker.

It was also somewhat novel to have Arthur’s sojourns in the house directly impact his life back home, rather than have every change reverted back to normal (a la Narnia’s wardrobe):  in the first novel, the First Key partially heals one of his lungs from asthma and in this book, his leg remains broken.

I liked the book slightly less than the first one, but I continue to be impressed by Nix’s consistency and the progression through the days, the seven deadly sins (this book covers Greed), and virtues (the Will is shown as prudent).

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

4  out of 5 stars (finished December 6, 2010)

Mister Monday by Garth Nix

December 15, 2010 2 comments

Mister Monday is the first book in Garth Nix’s The Keys to the Kingdom series for young adults (see the bottom of this post for a list of the other books in the series).  I’ve read the novel several times and now that the final book has been released, I plan to read through them all to refresh my memory.

The plot:  our Earth (I think anyway that it’s OUR Earth) is one of the chiefest Secondary Realms created by the Architect.  True time runs in the House, almost a universe in itself, which was intended by the Architect to record all that happened in the many Secondary Realms without interfering.  At some time in the past, the Architect disappears, leaving a Will under the control of seven Trustees (of which Mister Monday is one).  At an appointed time, an Heir must be found and the Trustees’ powers must be relinquished.  Instead, the Trustees break up the Will, hide the pieces so that no one can find them, ignore its tenets, retain control of their domains in the House, and begin to effect the Secondary Realms (each of the Days agree to divide the worlds — Mister Monday of the Lower House, for example, is permitted can reach out on any Monday).

The first piece of the Will is sentient and after thousands of years manages to escape.  Its first task is to name an Heir to find the remaining pieces and wrest the Keys from the Trustees.  The person it selects is Arthur Penhaligon, a junior high-aged boy from our world (again, I think).

Arthur must quickly figure out what is happening, enter the House, and save his family from the Sleepy Plague, a virus spread by contamination of some of the denizens of the House sent by Monday.  And, incidentally, the only way to do so is to follow the Will’s direction.

The book is very well written and seems to be very consistent in its ideas.  Each Trustee supervises a part of the house with a specific purpose — Monday is in charge of the Lower House, largely concerned with bureaucracy, contracts, and files.  Each Trustee has also fallen into one of the Seven Deadly Sins — Monday’s vice is sloth, which has essentially caused the Lower House to back up with paperwork.  There are key servants for each of the Days:  a Dawn, Noon, and Dusk.

Interesting characters abound including the Old One, a Prometheus of sorts who is imprisoned in the lower coal mines for an undisclosed sin against the Architect.

With its conceit of a House at the center of the universe it reminds me a bit of The High House by James Stoddard (which I recommend highly).

The one quibble I have is that the main character, who is very likable, is almost too competent and clever.  I wish that he had a few more flaws, rather than merely physical ones (asthma) which he cannot help.

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished December 2, 2010)