Friday, October 29, 2010

Pegasus is coming! Let's celebrate!

I thought it would take forever, but it's almost November, and Robin McKinley's latest is almost out. Here are three sample chapters. (Isn't the cover gorgeous?) I am very excited, but I'm hesitating just a bit on this one, because Robin has warned us about the horrible cliffhanger ending. It's not going to be one of those this-battle's-over-but-the-war-continues cliffhangers: it's a stop-in-the-middle-of-the-story cliffhanger. And she's not finished writing the second book (she promises there will be only two books), so it could be years before it comes out! What to do . . . what to do . . .

Aw, heck, I know I'm going to read Pegasus right away, there's no way I have the discipline to wait! I'll just have to suffer along with everyone else.

In celebration of Pegasus's release date (Nov 2), I'd love to get together with anyone in the Lower Mainland (Vancouver, BC) and eat baking and talk about Robin McKinley (if you've read Sunshine you'll know why the baking is necessary). (Not that baking wouldn't always be necessary!). Since Tuesday might be a difficult day to get together, I propose Saturday, Nov 6. Is there anyone else out there in Vancouver who's a big Robin McKinley fan? Let me know and we'll have a party!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Darkness in Children's Literature: How Much is Too Much?

I just read a great post by Book Aunt that tracks the increasing numbers of dark, scary, creepy, or violent books written for children and young adults. Coincidentally, I was at the Surrey International Writer's Conference this weekend, and a panel on children's books spent a fair bit of time discussing this trend. Book Aunt raised a couple of questions that were also asked of the panel: does one have to write dark stuff now in order to get published? And, is it the kid readers who are driving this trend, or is it adult writers/publishers/readers/reviewers? Underlying all the discussions, I think, is the question of whether this is a worrying trend or not.

Now, as a reader, I have no problems with creepy. I don't do horror (a la Stephen King or Silence of the Lambs), but I loved Gaimon's The Graveyard Book and Coraline. The book I'm reading right now (The Hunchback Assignments) opens with the line, "Six hunting hounds had perished in previous experiments," and the first chapter is titled, "Abomination," and I went, "oooooh, goody!"

I do not think children should only be given nice, sweet books that are good for them. I think that childhood is a scary place and the world is a scary place, and I believe that stories about monsters are important ways for children to deal with real fears (was it Bruno Bettleheim or C. S. Lewis who said that?). And besides, books aren't very much fun if they don't have nasty villains.

However. I'm sure we all agree that a line should be drawn between what's appropriately scary or violent and what's too scary for children of a certain age. No one would think a ten-year-old should watch Pulp Fiction, nor do I think anyone would give The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to a 14-year-old. But beyond the really extreme cases, it becomes more difficult. My grade four teacher thought the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie was innocuous enough to show our class for Halloween. I had nightmares for weeks after. My 10-year-old son finds the Daleks on Doctor Who terrifying. ("Come on," I say, "its weapons are a toilet plunger and an egg beater!" But they strike a chord of fear with him.) And yet he saw Lord of the Rings when he was 8, and it didn't bother him. If I found Mockingjay too violent for my 40-something self, does that mean it shouldn't have been published as YA? (I'm trying to find the blog that had a whole discussion about this a month or so ago, but I can't remember where it was!)

There isn't really any way to say, We shouldn't let kids read This, because how can we define This (and who are We, anyway?). But if We are publishers, booksellers, librarians, I'm thinking it's pretty important to package and categorize books in a way that lets the reader know what they're in for. (If people hadn't warned me about how violent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, I wouldn't have known to skip the rape scene, and there would be images in my head I really wouldn't want.) (And I'm starting to think we need a new category--Older YA or something--to cover teen books that have more sex and violence than some teens might want to read.)

And if We are writers and editors, we come up against the question of how to create scary nasty villains and situations without making them too scary for our audience. The discussion at the Writer's Conference ended with the thought that, whatever the level of violence or fear, children's (and even YA) books should always have some element of hope. My son deals with Dalek nightmares by pretending he has a magic wand that sends them back to outer space. The most horrible of evils can be defeated. Faith, friendship, determination and courage are always stronger than corruption and tyranny. Could this be why I read children's books?

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

I know I said I was going to focus on less-well-known authors, but this is one of those cases where I have to squee a bit about someone who is rightfully famous. And perhaps Terry Pratchett's YA books are less well-known than his adult ones, so maybe this counts.

In any case, GO READ THE WEE FREE MEN. And then come back and we can talk.

So. Now that you've read the first Tiffany Aching book, you'll want to go on to A Hat Full of Sky and then Wintersmith. Now. Do you see what I mean?

I love Tiffany Aching. From our first introduction to her, where she sees a monster in the creek so she goes and gets a frying pan, sets her younger brother out as bait, and whacks the monster on the head with a clang ("It was a good clang, with the oiyoiyoioioioioioinnnnngggggggg that is the mark of a clang well done"), you know this is a character whose head you want to be in. She's eleven years old, and she decides she wants to be a witch when she finds out about an old woman who was turned out of her house and died in the snow because people suspected her of being a witch.

"Tell me why you still want to be a witch, bearing in mind what happened to Mrs Snapperly?"
"So that sort of thing doesn't happen again."
She even buried the old witch's cat, thought Miss Tick. What kind of child is this?
Tiffany thinks, and she cares, and she pays attention to detail. She loves words like susurrus. And now that I'm in chapter one looking for more quotations, I think I'll just reread the whole book . . .

I love Pratchett's concept of witchcraft: the way Tiffany learns to use her First Thoughts and Second Thoughts and Third Thoughts, and "open your eyes, then open your eyes again." I love the memory of Granny Aching, who wasn't exactly a witch, but was there, and did what had to be done, and never lost a lamb. "Witches deal with things."

Then if all that wasn't enough, we get the Nac Mac Feegle. Just say that out loud. You have to read a book that has Nac Mac Feegle in them. Nothing I say about them will do them justice--but that's okay, you've already read The Wee Free Men, so you know what I mean.

And all this was supposed to be a review of I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth Tiffany Aching book. So if I'm preaching to the converted, and you just want to know if the latest book lives up to our expectations for Tiffany: it does. Tiffany is now sixteen and living back with her family as the witch of the Chalk. There is realistic character development as she tries to fit herself into her new responsibility, and we're cheering for her. The ante is upped yet again, with an even more frightening villain: this book is the darkest of the four, because what Tiffany faces isn't just supernatural; it's the evil in men's hearts. But I was still laughing out loud on almost every page, unless I was crying. Sometimes both at once. There's a scene near the end that perfectly illustrates what I mean (it doesn't give any plot away):

There was a general murmuring from the other Feegles, on the broad theme of slaughter for whoever laid a hand on a Feegle mound, and how personally each and every one of them would regret what he would have to do.
"It's yon troosers" said Slightly-Thinner -Than-Fat-Jock-Jock. "Once a man gets a Feegle up his troosers, his time of trial and tribulation is only just beginning." . . .
Later in the conversation:
There was a glint in Wee Mad Arthur's eye that prompted Tiffany to ask, "How exactly did they commit suicide?"
The policeman Feegle shrugged his small broad shoulders. "They took a shovel to a Feegle mound, miss. I am a man who knows the law, miss. I never saw a mound until I met these fine gentlemen, but even so my blood boils, miss, it boils, so it does. My heart it does thump, my pulse it does race, and my gorge it arises like the breath of some dragon at the very thought of a bright steel shovel slicing though the clay of a Feegle mound, cutting and crushing. I would kill the man that does this, miss. I would kill him dead, and chase him through the next life to kill him another time, and I would do it again and again, because it would be the sin o' sins, to kill an entire people, and one death wouldnae be enough for recompense. However, as I am an aforesaid man of the law, I very much hope that the current misunderstanding can be resolved withoot the need for wholesale carnage and bloodletting and screaming and wailing and weeping and people having bits of themselves nailed to trees, such as has never been seen before, ye ken?"
Pratchett has such complete command of tone that it's possible to have tears of laughter streaming down your face while at the same time catching your breath with sympathetic horror, and in fact the horror is more real because the laughter has engaged your sympathy. Have I mentioned that I love the Nac Mac Feegles?

I Shall Wear Midnight is a very satisfying conclusion to the Tiffany Aching books, and now I think I'll reread all four of them, with a pen and paper to write down all the great little lines that I think I'll remember and then don't.

This series is like a really good breakfast buffet, with fresh pancakes and waffles and bacon and sausages and porridge made with cream and fruit and everything. And cheese, can't forget the cheese.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Two days until Cryoburn!

Bonus post! Look what I just found: Chapters has an "interview" between Lois McMaster Bujold and her famous character Miles Vorkosigan to promote Cryoburn, the latest book in the Vorkosigan Saga. (Click on Read More in the From the Author section.) If you haven't discovered Miles yet, I highly recommend starting with Warrior's Apprentice, or if you don't want to go that far back, Komarr isn't a bad place to meet him. Let's just say that if the YA Fantasy Showdown had included Adult Sci Fi, Miles would have held his own against both Eugenides and Howl, and I love those characters, so that's saying a lot. (Hmmm. I wonder what Miles vs Ender would be like . . .)

Books are My Drug of Choice, Part 2: Getting High

The ability to escape reality through books is reason enough for them to be addictive. But books are also like heroin: they don't just offer oblivion; they produce a high. And it's the high that I keep coming back for.

Exciting, page-turning adventures have an obvious high: the suspense of watching good guys escape bad guys, solve mysteries and battle monsters (or unpleasant people) sends real adrenaline through my veins. And, generally speaking, the good guys win, which creates a rush of euphoria.

But even quieter books without monsters or battles gave their own types of high. For one thing, reading allows me to identify completely with a character--not only do I experience that character's emotions, but I also take on character traits that I might not always exemplify in real life. I get to feel courageous, or honorable, or compassionate, or clever. Characters have flaws, of course, but ultimately even the tragic heroes have at least one redeeming quality that it feels good to identify with. It feels good to stand up for what's right, to defend the underdog, to discover the truth, to not give in. When Jane Eyre determines to leave Mr. Rochester--"Still indomitable was the reply--'I care for myself.'" When Molly Weasly cries, "NOT MY DAUGHTER YOU B*TCH!" (Best use of a swear word in fiction, ever!) I get to feel moral strength, or righteous anger, and that is a high.

The second type of high that all works of fiction produce, regardless of genre or style or plot, just by virtue of being a story, is a sense of significance. Ordinary life doesn't always feel imbued with purpose or meaning. The truly worthwhile goals (raising decent children, developing one's character) are pretty long-term, and it can be hard to see the point of most day-to-day minutiae (and a lot of it is simply pointless). A story has a point. It has meaning; that's what makes it a story. The events come together in a climax, the characters progress to an epiphany, everything that happens is meant to happen. Whatever moral centre the book rests on, it has a moral centre. There are protagonists and antagonists. Fantasy is particularly good at drawing clear lines between good and evil--how many times have I looked up from a book and wished there were some orcs to fight or a sword to go find--then I'd know exactly what I was supposed to do! But even in realistic stories without obvious good guys and bad guys, there is a conflict to be won, and the protagonist wins it--or loses it but finally understands. Meaning is wrested from the chaos of events.

Our brains are wired to need significance, and stories fill that need. I for one, need rather frequent doses of this particular prescription.

Recent books that have given meaning to my life:

Toads and Diamonds, by Heather Tomlinson: A very unique and exotic retelling of the fairy tale.
Soulless, by Gail Carriger: You wouldn't think it from the title, but this one's hilarious. And a romance.
Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters: I have discovered Miss Amelia Peabody, Egyptologist and crime solver.
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers: I have also discovered Lord Peter Wimsey, sort of a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Columbo, what?
A Matter of Magic, by Patricia C. Wrede: Contains Mairelon the Magician and its sequel, The Magician's Ward, which is just as much fun.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, The Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood

I picked this book up for the title: I love intriguing titles. Then I met Miss Penelope Lumley, and I was hooked.

A cross between Mary Poppins and Jane Eyre with a dash of Edgar Allen Poe, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling is funny, surprising, and mysterious. We begin with Miss Penelope Lumley, a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, taking a train ride to her first job interview. She worries that the train may be attacked by bandits, that she might forget the capitals of European countries, or that she might "end up with marmalade all over the front of her dress and run from the room weeping," but it soon becomes apparent that Miss Lumley is "much, much more than her current circumstances would indicate." Upon meeting the children under her care and discovering that they have been raised by wolves, she is "not in the least bit alarmed." After all, she has "spent many a useful hour assisting Dr. Westminster," the Swanburne veterinarian. She is appalled that the children are being kept in the barn: "they had plenty of hay and the saddle blankets for warmth--but no watercolor paints? No decks of cards? Not a single book to pass the time? . . .To Penelope's way of thinking, it approached the barbaric."

I fell in love with Penelope's original thinking and strength of character, and I loved watching her gentleness tame the three children (they are soon reading poetry and learning Latin, of course). But all is not well at Ashton Place, for there is a mystery concerning the unpleasant Lord Fredrick, and he appears to have evil intentions regarding the children, which Penelope must try to thwart. There is a gloriously comical and suspenseful Christmas ball: poetry is recited to much chaos, gentlemen go hunting, something is almost discovered in the attic, and a squirrel is adopted. We are left, however, with a number of compelling questions: Where did the children come from? Where did Penelope come from? What or who is hiding in the attic? Why does Lord Frederick keep consulting the almanack, and where was he during the Christmas party? Alas, we must wait for a sequel! Luckily, Maryrose Wood appears to be a fast writer, and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery, is coming out in Feb 2011. In the meantime, I'm going to check out her teen novels.

Oh, I forgot to make a food metaphor! TICAP:TMH (I really didn't want to write the whole thing out again!) is like sticky toffee pudding: sweet and delicious with hidden chewy depths, and oh, so very British. (And did I mention it's hilarious?)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Books are My Drug of Choice, Part 1: Escapism

Perhaps I ought to amend my goal to blogging once a week. Eh, heh.

I recently reported on a book binge, which I said I was coming off of. Not entirely accurate. In the spirit of confession (not that I'm repenting!), a brief case history of my particular disease:

 When I've had a bad day, or a bad week, when I'm feeling particularly down on myself, when I have something unpleasant to do that I just can't bring myself to deal with, when other people might head to the bar to get some temporary forgetfulness, I go to the library.

I don't drink, so I can't authoritatively compare the oblivion of a book to that of the bottle, but I submit that there are similarities. (I even get book hangovers from staying up far too late reading!) I am able to submerse myself so effectively in the alternate reality of a novel that if I am interrupted (and you have to be loud and insistent if you want to get my attention) it takes me a few seconds to remember where and who I am. I substitute the emotions of the characters for my own emotions, take on their problems instead of my own problems, and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment when they succeed. (Do you get that feeling from alcohol?)

Unfortunately, I read very quickly, so the story ends and I've only escaped my own misery for a few hours. And after the satisfying conclusion to the fictional characters' adversity, my unsolved problems seem even more onerous and unsolvable. So I pick up another book. Not to read it, of course, since I've already wasted more time than I should. I just want to look at the cover and feel the heft of the pages. I might read the front flap, just to get an idea of what it might be about. And maybe the first page, to see if the writing is any good. Two hours later, I emerge blinking dazedly from another universe to find that my problems are two hours further from being solved, and now it's dinnertime and there's no food in the house, and I haven't even showered yet today, and the kids are late for music lessons. The kids (and the husband) are also miffed at having been completely ignored for hours on end. (I was once reading a book while my two-year-old played with blocks, and he got so frustrated with my inattention that he dumped the entire container of blocks over my head.) But I don't really want to deal with their unhappiness, so I reach for another book . . .

Books may be safer than alcohol as a means of escape, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that books are addictive and a book addiction leads to damaged relationships and destructive behaviour!

Sigh. Here are some books I've used lately to avoid talking to my family (yes, I've read all these since the last long list of books, and no, this isn't all I've read, it's just the ones I'd recommend):

Dealing With Dragons and Searching for Dragons, Patricia C. Wrede: first two books of the Enchanted Forest series, lighthearted plays on fairy-tale conventions. Good fun. Also her Mairelon the Magician, a magical Victorian comedy of errors.
Wake and Fade, Lisa McMann: I need to get the third book; these are page-turners with supernatural crime solving and romance.
Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta: dark, epic fantasy about refugees from a cursed kingdom. Should have been a trilogy but she packs it all into one book. Original story, great world-building, intense characters.
Tomorrow, When the War Began, John Marsden: post-apocolyptic adventure set in Australia, first of a series. Exciting, realistic adventure.
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Maryrose Wood: this one's worth a blog post.