Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: TWO BY JANE LOUISE CURRY

WolvesAamShadowDancersCover art by Michael Mariano and Rick Turner

These might be the last fantasy books by Jane Louise Curry I hadn’t read, and I’m a little sad about that, I’ve enjoyed many of her books. While separate stories, they’re closely connected and best read together.

The viewpoint characters are small men and women of the Tiddi people, a wandering group who cover a regular yearly circuit through part of the land of Astarlind. Several young Tiddi get swept up in unexpected serious trouble  with Men, wolves, ice giants, magicians, and a large cast of people and (sometimes) talking animals. Magic stones from ancient times have surfaced, and an hidden evil presence is seeking them, sending his goblins and other dire creatures to find them. Runner, Fith and Cat, the young Tiddi, become part of a mission to destroy an evil outpost in a northern ice-bound land in the first book, and another mission to uncover the hidden evil and missing magic stones in the second.

These books are highly derivative of Tolkien, which is good in some ways, bad in others. For one thing there’s a deep back story giving events resonance, but Curry does not explain it as well as Tolkien, probably because there isn’t room. Second, some characters keep reminding the reader of Tolkien’s: the Tiddi of Hobbits, Lek the conjuror of Gandalf, and so on, but they aren’t as memorable or well-rounded in my opinion. Yet, there is an epic feel to the books that I liked, and lots of imaginative ideas.

Both books are full of exciting adventures and good characters who traverse an interesting and diverse land, and I did enjoy reading them, but I wouldn’t put them among Curry’s best work. Still, recommended.

And Then I Read: THE KING IN THE WINDOW by Adam Gopnik

KingWindowCover illustration by Thomas Woodruff, jacket design by Christine Kettner.

Oliver Parker is 12, and living in Paris with his American parents, his father is on assignment there for his job. Sounds romantic, but Oliver is in a very tough French school struggling to keep up, and at home he’s babied by his parents, who still treat him like he’s five. All that changes one January night when Oliver is swept into a fantasy kingdom of Window Wraiths, who live in the windows of Paris, and are able to come forth in ghostly form at certain times. The Window Wraiths take Oliver by their secret ways to the palace of Versailles, and they turn out to be the spirits of former inhabitants and guests of that place who are in desperate need of a King to help them in their battle with another similar but evil group, of spirits who live in the mirrors of Paris. Before he realizes what he’s getting into, Oliver agrees to be their King, and is soon in all kinds of danger and trouble. Fortunately he finds some friends to help him: a cantankerous old lady, Mrs. Pearson, his American pal Charlie, and a mysterious but beautiful girl, Neige. Oliver’s adventures soon take him to many parts of Paris, the known and the unknown, as well as the dark world behind the mirrors where an evil overlord is plotting to take over our world and the entire universe.

The writing of the main characters in this book is quite good, especially in the beginning, as we get to know them. Paris itself is portrayed beautifully throughout. The fantasy elements are not handled as well, they don’t seem thoroughly planned. Just when Oliver and his friends seem in a hopeless situation, some new element is introduced to save the day. This gives the feeling that anything can happen, that there are no rules, and that makes it hard to suspend disbelief. When anything can happen, it’s hard to care or believe in the intended suspense of the plot. The villain is one-dimensional and never came to life for me, except near the end when he’s posing as a Silicon Valley genius undertaking a massive experiment in the Eiffel Tower. The plot is a roller-coaster ride where the riders never seem to get a good handle on which direction they’re going until the very end. And the basic idea of the Window Wraiths and Mirror Spirits isn’t portrayed in a logical way that I could accept, it seemed rather a stretch, and kept pulling me out of the story.

I can’t say I’m sorry I read this book, I liked some things about it, but I can only mildly recommend it. I’m sure a young reader would be less critical than I, and there are plenty of imaginative ideas and action-film dramatics. The book is published by Miramax Books, perhaps it was bought for screen-adaptation potential, but that’s just a guess.

And Then I Read: POSITIVELY 4TH STREET by David Hajdu

Pos4thStCover art by Eric Von Schmidt

As a teenager I was a folk music fan. I started playing guitar at around age 14, and tried to pick up both rock and folk songs I heard on the radio. Occasionally I’d buy printed sheet music, but more often I’d get the trade paperback collections by folk artists that were a better bargain, including those by The Weavers and Peter Paul and Mary. My friend Tim, who I played with, had a few more, and we heard folk music on TV or occasionally on the radio on small FM stations that were popping up then. I lived in New Jersey, about a 1.5 hour ride to New York’s concert scene, but as I got a little older, I headed for the Fillmore East more often than to any folk concerts. After reading this book, I regret that, I missed a lot.

I don’t often read biographies, but when I do, musician ones are often a good choice, and this book covers four artists whose lives and careers were intertwined for several years during their heyday. Joan Baez came first, one of the earliest “girls with a guitar,” and a truly amazing natural voice that came out of her without training. Joan’s sister Mimi also sang and played, but always took a back seat to her famous sister until she met the poet and rogue Richard Fariña in Paris, and they fell in love. Richard had begun getting into the folk scene as well, and with Mimi as a partner, they became a duo that made a big hit on the folk scene for a few years, and two albums, until Richard was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident just as his first novel was released. Bob Dylan’s story is familiar to many, but as this book details, the truth about his background was hidden during his early years on the folk scene, and he posed as someone more folksy than he really was, with a variety of back stories. Dylan’s music and voice were harder on the ears and minds than many folksingers of the time, and at first he got little traction, but the help of an ambitious manger, Albert Grossman, and the championing of his music by his eventual lover Joan Baez, helped put Dylan on the front ranks of the folk scene. A few years later he surpassed them all by attracting the general music audience with hits such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” even as he turned away from the early protest music that had made him famous.

David Hajdu’s book is excellently written, full of fascinating details, and insightful views of these four musicians from their early beginnings until the peak of the folk movement had passed, and with it some of their glory, though Joan and Bob remain on the music scene to this day, and their complex relationship continued for years.

If the people and times interest you, I can’t recommend this book enough. Thanks to my friend Tim for making sure I got a copy.

And Then I Read: THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING by Catherynne M. Valente

GirlFairylandCover and interior art by Ana Juan.

I’d heard good things about this book, and the cover quote from Neil Gaiman made it sound promising, but my review of this fantasy novel aimed at younger readers is mixed.

September (no last name) is an ordinary girl who longs for adventure, and finds her way to Fairyland, but one that is very different from what she and we might expect. Traditional fairies and their usual high spirits and trickery have been brutally suppressed by an evil ruler who goes so far as to chain the wings of flying creatures like the Wyvern pictured on the cover to prevent them the joy of flight. September has lots of unlikely adventures, meets many unusual beings, makes friends and enemies, and eventually finds herself face to face with the evil Marquess who has taken over Fairyland. But that’s only half her story, as she must then take on a hopeless quest to save her friends before having any hope of defeating the Marquess. The sailing event mentioned in the title is a rather short section of the book, not sure why it became the title. Throughout, September learns lessons, solves mysteries, uncovers evil, and tries her best to do good. It all wraps up nicely in the end.

While author Catherynne Valente writes well, it’s showy writing, drawing lots of attention to itself rather than the story, including authorial interjections and comments that only served to pull me out of the plot. There’s lots of inventive ideas and creations, but in rather a jumble of old and very new, making for an uneasy mix.

The illustrations by Ana Juan didn’t help the storytelling in my eyes, as they are cartoonish and cutesy, undercutting the drama and the suspension of disbelieve that any good fantasy requires.

So, in all, I didn’t dislike the book, I guess I liked it pretty well but didn’t love it. Probably if I was a kid myself I’d be less critical and more enthusiastic.

Mildly recommended.

And Then I Read: DIPPER OF COPPER CREEK by Jean Craighead George & John George

DipperCover art by Matt Westrup

If, like me, you’re a fan of novels written for younger readers with a nature theme, you’re likely to know the name Jean Craighead George. She wrote dozens of them. Before her breakout novels, “My Side of the Mountain,” and “Julie of the Wolves,” her earliest novels were co-written with her then husband, John George. This is the first of those I’ve found, and I enjoyed it just as much as her solo work, though the latter is a little better in my opinion.

Doug is a teenager who comes to spend the summer with his uncle in a high valley of the Colorado Rockies, an otherwise abandoned mining town. Uncle Bill is still prospecting there, and occasionally finding enough gold ore to live on, barely. When Doug arrives, he’s ready for adventure, but is surprised to find how much he enjoys the native wildlife, particularly a family of Dippers.

American Dippers, as they’re now called, are very unusual birds who can actually walk and fly underwater, where they find insect food in competition with fish! Their lives and habits are fascinating, and well documented in this book, along with many other animals of the area. The book gives about equal time between the humans and the animals, with the largest focus on a young male dipper and his mate. There are adventures, trials, and danger in both narratives, which join when Doug tries to capture and raise a young dipper in Uncle Bill’s cabin, with unhappy results for everyone.

The approach in the writing is little clinical, with the animals often named by their latin nomenclature, but the book is still a good read and entertaining as well as informative. This copy is a reprint from 1996, so possibly still in print.

Recommended.