Tag Archives: Fiction

The Romance of King Arthur

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This is the copy I read as a kid. The publication date on this is 1977 – so, buying it secondhand, I was probably 12 or 13.

Ah, Arthur. Who was he? Did he really exist? Was he a resistance fighter, or a true king? Or were the tales really stories of a “Cave” Arthur, a legendary leader that predates history? I don’t care, actually. I just love the tales and all their glorious retellings. My first introduction to Arthurian legend was through the novel The Once and Future King by T.H. White, like so many other readers. I read this wonderful account of King Arthur when I was a young teen, reading an ancient paperback that threatened to lose its cover before I finished it.

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If you enjoy Arthurian legend, you must read the source material in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle.

At university, I explored Arthurian tales in my classes, reading Chretien de Troyes’ romances, and the histories of the Venerable Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth. After graduating, my mind was blown by the brilliant reimagining of Arthur through Morgan le Fay’s POV as told by Marian Zimmer Bradley in The Mists of Avalon. That novel gets a place of honor on my permanent bookshelf in the sky.

3104570Then Bernard Cornwell’s novels (The Warlord Chronicles) appeared on the scene, and I was once again amazed at the way another author could take these legends, put them in a blender, and come out with a completely different atmosphere, making different thematic choices and focusing on different pieces of the legend. I thought it couldn’t get any more interesting than Bradley’s amazingly powerful Arthurian women, but Cornwell’s dirty, gritty stories just as powerful, and you can smell the manure – and the magic.

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I just enjoyed reading The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland, an Arthurian interpretation for a young adult audience. Crossley-Holland sets his tale in 1199, on a lord’s estate close to the English-Welsh border. The narrator of the tale, Arthur, is the second son of Sir John. He’s thirteen, not very good at tilting or swordsmanship, but has a gift with words. Merlin, a mysterious man who resides on the estate, gives Arthur a stone of obsidian, and cautions him to never mention it to anyone. Arthur discovers that this stone gives him visions, where he sees another thirteen year old boy named Arthur, whose story strangely echoes his.

The story was very well told. Crossley-Holland takes the Arthur of legend up to the momentous sword in the stone moment, leaving room for a few more novels which I think I may have to read. My only complaint about the novel is that Crossley-Holland’s chapters are so short – at the most 3 pages – that the narrative feels choppy and jumpy. I wish he had taken the time to extend some of the chapters, exploring the emotions in a deeper fashion.

I think the book I need to add to my book bank is Thomas  Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, but I’d love some additional suggestions. Are you a reader of Arthurian fiction? What would be on your Arthurian reading list?

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11/22/63 by Stephen King

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I find it interesting that many readers who don’t regularly read science fiction, do read Stephen King’s novels that are categorized as scifi. King’s novels The Running Man (originally published under the name Richard Bachman), Cell, The Stand, and Insomnia are what I would call “soft” science fiction, that is, scifi without a heavy reliance on scientific description or concepts. The novel 11/22/63 is a perfect example – a novel that went to the top of the bestseller lists, and stayed there for 17 weeks, yet it is a novel that starts with the revelation of a time travel portal.

But, of course, it’s more than just a story about a time traveller trying to change history. It’s about doing a bad deed in order to accomplish a greater good. It’s about the “butterfly effect” that time travel stories often discuss. It’s a heartwrenching love story. It’s a story of inspiring others to do great things.

The plot is long reaching, and takes time to develop, but it doesn’t meander. The main character, Jake Eppler, is given a task by his friend Al Templeton, who has discovered a time portal to 1958 in the storage room of his diner. Al convinces Jake to travel to 1958, and stay there until 1963 to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which Al has determined to be the precise moment that the US started down a bad path. Jake agrees, after he travels to 1958 and is able to prevent the murder of a local family. Al has kept copious notes about his time traveling adventures, where he gathered details on the daily activities of Lee Harvey Oswald and his associates. Jake travels back in time, and makes his way to Texas, where he finds work as a high school English teacher.

Jake blossoms and discovers a zest for life in Texas of the early sixties that his life in 2011 had never given him. He finds love with Sadie – the librarian at the high school, and satisfaction in his work, and companionship in the small town where he settles. But Dallas, 1963 is always hanging over his head, and his preparations for that day in Dealey Plaza begin to dominate his life, upsetting his love life and happiness.

I thoroghly enjoyed this novel. King has a gift for creating characters that you could swear you had already met. They are believable, and react in realistic ways, even when placed in a strange, time travel fantasy. As always, King’s writing communicates  a rich world, this time the US in the late fifties and early sixties, where, to Jake the world is “full.”

This fifty years-gone world smelled worse than I ever would have expected, but it tasted a whole hell of a lot better. Stephen King, 11/22/63, p.38

King gives the reader a few key phrases to hang onto in this novel. First,

The past is obdurate.

And the other:

Dancing is life.

King ends the novel on a perfect, sweet-sad note that moved me to tears. Highly recommended.

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The Dinner by Herman Koch

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The Dinner by Herman Koch was the June selection for the AMBC (Awesome Members Book Club) and it was an amazing choice that sparked a terrific conversation. This novel was originally published in 2009 in the Netherlands, and the translation was released in February in the United States. Many reviews compare this novel to Gone Girl, and while it does have some similarities to the thriller by Gillian Flynn, Koch’s novel is much more subversive and satirical.

The Dinner is the story of a dinner, two couples at a fancy restaurant meeting to talk about their teenaged sons. The husbands of the couples are brothers with a long history of mistrust and resentment, and their sons have committed an atrocity that needs addressing.

Koch plots the book through the courses of the meal, from aperitif to appetizer, all the way through to after dinner espresso. The narrator, Paul, tells the story, piece by piece, revealing the disturbing and horrific details through flashbacks. Paul’s opening affability and talk of “happy families” deepens into something darker. The seeming ignorance of the wives is skewered. Serge’s popularity tries Paul’s impatience. Each flashback exposes another layer, and the reader understands that Paul is not the most reliable of narrators.

The contrast between the painstaking descriptions of artistically prepared, artisan sourced food with the brutality and morally reprehensible actions of the characters takes the novel to a level of satire that I have not experienced in a very long time. Paul takes a perverse delight in asking the restaurant manager the provenance of the grapes garnishing his plate. The manager describes the grapes to a level of ridiculous detail but is unaware of Paul’s scorn.  Similarly, Paul describes his own episodes of violence to the reader, evoking a response of horror and disgust from the reader that Paul would not understand.

As I read the novel, my opinions of the characters evolved to such a degree that by the end, the “bad” characters were the only ones with any redeeming qualities.

Koch satirizes many of the aspects of post modern life – the ridiculous obsession with food, the culture of celebrity, reality tv and YouTube sensations. And underneath it all lie the age old questions of nature vs. nurture and how far parents will go to protect their children. Moral bankruptcy is the final item on the bill at the end of The Dinner.

This is a fast read that will draw the reader in quickly, almost too quickly – but I think that’s Koch’s intent. He draws you into a satirical black comedy, and then suddenly the reader realizes they are in the middle of a psychological thriller. This is a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it. If you enjoy a good story, it’s here. If you want deeper questions about morality and responsibility, they’re here too. Have fun!

 

 

 

 

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The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

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Celebrity memoirs can be a guilty pleasure. A bit more highbrow than a supermarket tabloid, but possibly just as titillating, celebrity memoirs consistently make the bestseller lists. But what about celebrities that aspire to be authors of fiction, rather than having a ghost writer help them hash out their life story? The only celebrity fiction authors that quickly spring to my mind are Carrie Fisher and Jamie Lee Curtis. And let’s face it, Postcards from the Edge (Fisher) was reportedly based on Fisher’s own experiences. And Curtis’ very respectable entries in the world of fiction are picture books written for the elementary set.

So my experience with the celebrity-as-writer-of-fiction is limited, which is why I was very intrigued to see The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer on the new books shelf at my local library.  Colfer is the very talented actor who has risen to fame firstly on the strength of his performance as Kurt Hummel on the television show Glee, and then through his activism, particularly through his very personal message to teens shared on The Trevor Project. I find him very inspiring, and extraordinarily charming on screen.

Colfer credits his grandmother for inspiring his deep love for story, and dedicates The Wishing Spell to her. He’s definitely a fan of traditional fairy tales – so many traditional tales like Cinderella, Snow White, Goldilocks, and Jack and the Beanstalk feature prominently in his tale. Colfer uses the familiar tales as a background for the main story of Alex and Connor, girl and boy twins that accidentaly travel to the Land of Story not long after their father dies.

Alex and Conner want to get back to reality, and find a journal describing the Wishing Spell. They decide that using the spell is the only way they’ll be able to get back home, so they undertake the arduous task of assembling its ingredients, which include Cinderella’s glass slipper, and a piece of the basket Red Riding Hood carried to her grandmother. Finding these elements requires them to travel all over the Land of Story, a journey made even more difficult by the pack of wolves that are pursuing them, plus the servants of the Evil Queen who are also chasing down the ingredients to the Wishing Spell.

The fairy tales are all pretty familiar, with some amusing fractures, such as Goldilocks’ portrayal as a persecuted vigilante. The main plot device of assembling the ingredients for the Wishing Spell is very similar to the plot of Into the Woods, the Broadway musical written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The main characters, Alex and Connor, step into fairly stereotypical roles. Alex is bookish and brainy, with no close friends, and Connor is brawny and popular, and hates school.

The Wishing Spell plays it safe, not overly stretching the reader with anything difficult. Where the story does gets interesting is in the original fairy tales Colfer includes and refers to in the novel, intriguingly titled the tale of the Walking Fish, and the tale of the Curvy Tree. Unfortunately, these tales are not explored as deeply as the familiar tales. Hopefully, Colfer will return to these original tales in the sequels he has planned.

Colfer’s prologue to the story is also nicely done, challenging the young audience to rethink their ideas of a villain. Snow White visits her stepmother in prison (no death by hot shoes in this version) to try and get some answers on the Queen’s motivation for targeting Snow White. The Queen offers this:

But what the world fails to realize is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.   The Evil Queen, The Wishing Spell, p9

Colfer is not an especially gifted writer of dialogue. In fact, much of the dialogue reads like a Disney sitcom and made me grimace. You can just about see the double-takes and camera mugging. But, I am not the intended audience. I know that this type of dialogue, with silly retorts and putdowns, is considered very funny by the third grader in my house.

I would recommend this novel to a child who enjoys familiar fairy tales, particularly the prince and princess-y stories. Late elementary grades are probably the best audience – I would say third grade to sixth grade would probably be the most entertained. There are some incidental illustrations by Brandon Dorman that add to the mood of the novel. The illustrated map is particularly well done.

Colfer’s first outing as a novelist hasn’t broken any new ground, but it is entertaining. Hopefully the next installments in the Land of Story series will improve upon the first, and I’m hoping that Colfer’s original fairy tales take a greater role.

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A New Literary Pilgrimage – Québec City

Bury Your Dead book coverAs a Biblio-filia, I have the geeky habit of making literary pilgrimages. Some of these trips turn out better than others, I admit. My fall trip to Tarrytown, New York with another booky friend to visit the haunts of Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow? Super! Dragging my husband to Haworth, Yorkshire to see the home of the Brontes? Well, let’s just say we had a good long walk on the moor.

There’s a new literary pilgrimage that I am putting on my to-do list this year. Tours Voir Quebec (http://www.toursvoirquebec.com/en/old-quebec-tours/bury-your-dead) in Québec City has put together a walking tour that features the settings in the novel Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny. Penny writes the critically acclaimed Inspector Gamache series, a mystery series that starts with the novel Still Life, published in 2007. The series has a total of eight books, and the ninth will be published this summer.

Most of Penny’s mysteries have been set in the fictional village of Three Pines, an Anglophone village in the Canadian province of Québec. Other books have been located in other fictional locations – a remote monastery in her most recent novel, The Beautiful Mystery, and a spectacular, old fashioned resort hotel in A Rule Against Murder. The novel Bury Your Dead is the only novel, to date, that is set in a real place.

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Chateau Frontenac

And the real place is Québec City, which Penny describes in attractive, comforting detail. Inspector Gamache is recuperating from an injury at the home of an old friend and colleague in Québec City. As part of his recuperation, Gamache indulges his passion for historical research in the Québec Literary and Historical Society, a fantastic library established to preserve the history of the English people of Québec. Gamache and his friend sip cafe au lait at cafes, Gamache takes walks with his dog in the narrow streets of Québec City, and through the entire novel we see the facade of the Chateau Frontenac, Québec City’s landmark hotel.

I have started pricing train tickets, and hotels in Quebec City… hopefully I will make it there soon.

If you are a fan of the mystery genre, I highly recommend Penny’s novels. Her characters are memorably written and her descriptions of settings are exceptionally vivid and emotionally evocative. The main detective character, Armand Gamache, is a gentle, honorable man with a fascinating backstory. Penny’s website is also one of the best author websites I have ever explored. You can find out the series order, learn how to pronounce the French in the books, and get publishing information. Visit Louise Penny’s website at: http://www.louisepenny.com.

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World Book Night 2013

Hi res WBN logo 2013There are few things more satisfying than sharing a good book with someone. I would rank “sharing a book” above “my mother-in-law’s chocolate bread pudding,” and trust me, that is saying something. One of my favorite book sharing memories comes from when I was just out of college, trying to figure out how transition from college friend to adult friend. My friend Judy and I had a very grown up, meet your friend for lunch get together, but we needed something more. At that time there was a wonderful independent book seller on Main Street in Newark, Delaware, and Judy and I stopped in to browse together after lunch. We each decided to buy a book – for the other person. I cannot remember what book I bought Judy. I hope it was a good title. Judy bought me The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which rocked my world and changed me, and has been on my list of favorite books ever since.

I also love sharing books with my kids. When they were small, I read to them favorites from my childhood, like The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It’s thrilling when they love the books I have chosen, and even if they don’t love my choice, I learn something about them and their personalities. When I get a book recommendation from my kids, I always give it a try – I know if they want me to read a book, they are sharing a private world and inviting me in to take a look. That’s important.

My strongest book sharing relationship is with my friend Julie. For the past 10 years, we have passed books back and forth, and we have developed a code for our book sharing. If Julie tells me she doesn’t want the book back, I know it’s a good book, but not a great book. If I tell Julie that she needs to give the book back when she’s done so my husband can read it too, she knows it’s a fast paced, exciting book. And if we hand a book over to share and it’s a library book with a week left on its checkout, it must be an amazing book that is too good to wait for the library bureaucracy to process. Read it NOW.

5302888I was in England in the spring of 2011 when I first heard about World Book Night, reading a poster in a W.H. Smith’s. Amazing! A night devoted to sharing books, especially with people who might not be enthusiastic readers. And then in 2012, World Book Night was introduced to the United States. Last year, I was a book giver for World Book Night, and the title I gave out was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I picked The Hunger Games as my first choice, because I felt it was a title that crossed genres  – young adult, fantasy, girl heroine, science fiction – and could appeal to many readers, particularly people who don’t choose to read very often. The editions given away on World Book Night were printed for the occasion, and were donated by the publishers and authors.

I applied again this year to give away books, and this year I will be giving away Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. I have not read this book yet, and it feels strange to give away a book that I don’t have a personal connection to yet. Mudbound won the Bellwether Prize, awarded to unpublished manuscripts that support social responsibility, which is the reason this book was my first choice to give away. This year, as I did last year, I will be giving my books to the residents and staff of Epiphany House in Wilmington, Delaware, part of the ministries of Friendship House. Friendship House does amazing work for the homeless in my hometown. I hope that having a good book to read will make a difference to the women of Epiphany House.

Sometimes having a good book to read can make all the difference in the world.

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Potato Chips and Passion

508517Recently I read an amusing, two-book children’s series by Allen Kurzweil (Mr. Kurzweil’s website) that uses the obsessions and passions of the characters as plot devices. The first book in the series, Leon and the Spitting Image (2003) introduces the main character, Leon Zeisel, whose “collection” of taxi drivers fuels the first chapter and provides a running thread for the entire book. Leon’s 4th grade teacher, Miss Hagmeyer, uses her passion for sewing to teach  the children their year long theme of the Middle Ages. The kids learn to follow sewing patterns, sew different stitches and construct “animales.”  Leon is fine motor challenged, and finds his 4th grade year at the Classical School a trial – until he creates an animale that becomes imbued with magical properties.

Leon and the Spitting Image is inventive and fun, and filled with memorable characters, like Napoleon the Haitian taxi driver, and crazy contraptions like the evil ice machine. Leon and his mother live in the hotel Leon’s mother runs, which plays host to all the conventions no other hotel would take – usually animal themed conventions – which provides a lot of poop humor and punning possibilities. The illustrations by Bret Bertholf (Mr. Bertholf’s website) are perfect, particularly the vintage feeling pen and ink illustration of the different eyeballs used in the animales.

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The second book in the series is titled Leon and the Champion Chip, and features Leon’s next obsession, potato chips. Leon hits the lucky jackpot in his 5th grade year with his science teacher, Mr. Sparks, who uses potato chips to teach the science curriculum to Leon’s class. Through  potato chip science, the children study scientific classification, combustion, propulsion, and many other scientific topics.

This is another light hearted, inventive book that manages to take on the topic of  bullying. Kurzweil handles it in an obvious way, with Leon’s bully, Lumpkin, and also in a subtle way, with the bullying of Mr. Sparks by some skeptical parents who are not thrilled with the potato chip curriculum.

For me, the issues Leon faced were secondary to the exploration of his passion, potato chips. Leon and his friends attend The Potato Chip Convention and Taste Off in Leon and the Champion Chip. The scenes with the Taste Off competition were brilliantly funny, and would be the highlight of a fantastic kids’ movie. The passions and obsessions in these fun books are treated in a very refreshing way. No one was neurotic or strange, just passionate and intense. Apparently, Mr. Kurzweil shares some of these characteristics, and actually built some of the devices used in these books (potato cannon, anyone?). Kurzweil has also written a non fiction book for kids called Potato Chip Science, which looks like ideal inspiration for an elementary school science fair.

I would highly recommend this pair of books to elementary age – middle school kids. My 6th grader loved these books, and he is hard to please. Hearing him laugh out loud over Leon’s predicaments, and having him say – “Mom, you have to read this book!” – is the highest recommendation I know.

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