Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

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Review: Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 22


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Fablehaven is book One in a 5-book series by the same name.  After a death in the family, Kendra and Seth’s parents agree to go on a long cruise, in order to satisfy the dying wishes of their relative.  The kids are going to stay with their reclusive grandparents for the same time.  Certain mystery has always shrouded the kids’ relationship with their grandparents – why do they never want visitors? Why do they only visit the family one at a time, but never together?  How come it is always so long between visits?  And where has Grandma really been for the past few months?  On their visit to Fablehaven, they soon find the answers to all these questions and more, much, much more.  Soon, Kendra and Seth are immersed in a world of dangerous fantasy – where magical creatures really do exist, but where the laws protecting mortals from certain doom are fiercely enforced and dizzyingly easy to break, mistakenly or on purpose.  When Midsummer’s Eve comes around, the mystical world comes alive and Seth and Kendra find themselves in a rapid quest to save Fablehaven, and their grandparents, from destruction.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

There are two primary characters in Fablehaven, Kendra and Seth.  Ultimately, Kendra is allotted more page time than Seth and it is her quest near the end of the story which becomes the falling action and resolution of the story – so it is safe to say that she is the primary character, though it is hard at times to tell.  While Seth and Kendra have clearly distinct personalities and while the reader is clearly guided as to who is speaking or whose journey is being witnessed at the time, having two main characters is ultimately a bit distracting and detracts from the possibility of forming a strong bond between the reader and either of them.  Minor characters, though, such as the grandparents and the magical creatures (particularly the Witch, the Satyrs, the fairies, and the Golem) are interesting creations.  The kids, too, have recognizable characteristics: Seth is bold, rash, and eager to break the rules; Kendra is cautious, patient, and studious.  These characters could be the kind one might grow attached to, with a bit more development.


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

For most of the book, the prose and construction are very well done.  The chapters are a bit longer than expected in a Middle Grade (MG) book, but they read fast, so younger readers probably won’t have an issue with the length.  The vocabulary is an added bonus – as it is relatively comparable to the level, but with some great and appropriate inclusions of more advanced words which help make the prose more interesting for older readers and which provide a learning opportunity for younger ones.  At times, description is somehow simultaneously over-and-underdone.  There are moments, particularly where the end, where much is being described at the same time (a plethora of magical creatures in a battle, for instance) and these descriptions are spouted-off in rapid fire, to create a sense of thrill/danger which echoes the battle, but the descriptions are ultimately many in number, but without much depth (the Bear-Octopus hybrid creature, for instance, just seemed like something thrown in because another creature had to be thrown in – not because it had an actual or believable place).  Overall, the language is enjoyable and the story is fast-paced, though a bit too thinly constructed and over-reaching near the end.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

The best part of fantasy books tends to be what they say about real life, when they are immersing their readers in a fantasy world.  This particular book is primarily about growing up, learning to be responsible, and coming to terms with the fact that actions truly do have consequences.  Seth, who is adventurous to the point of being thoughtless, makes grave mistakes which put the family in peril and force him to become reflective and cautious for the first time.  Kendra, the toe-the-line loner, is left on her own to save them all after great evil is released.  She must learn to be confident and to sometimes break the rules, when its necessary, or Fablehaven will fall.  Other interesting elements include sibling relationships, discussions of good and evil, empathy/consideration of others, and family.  Death/dying and loss is also a theme, however mourning was not approached so the primary theme is muted.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Middle Grade
Interest: Fantasy, Child heroes, Adventure, MG Series, Siblings.

Notable Quotes:

“In their youth, mortals behave more like nymphs. Adulthood seems impossibly distant, let alone the enfeeblement of old age. But ponderously, inevitably, it overtakes you.” 

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

 Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 13


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howls Moving Castle came about when a young boy asked the author to write a story about a castle that moved.  Knowing that ahead of time added an interesting element to the experience, as it was fun to see how that one small, random request morphed in Jones’s imagination and eventually came out as this very entertaining and surprisingly meaningful book.  The story is about a young woman, Sophie Hatter, who is the eldest of three sisters.  The book immediately takes on a satirical tone, simultaneously mimicking and mocking the literary fantasy (and particularly fairy tale) traditions of yore.  Sophie and her family live in the Kingdom of Ingary, where conventional fairy tale tropes are in effect facts of life.  As the eldest sister, Sophie knows she must take care of her family first – probably living to become an old maid while her sisters get to go to the balls, court dashing princes, and study the magical arts.  Things begin to change, though, when Sophie is mistaken for her sister by the Witch of the Waste. She is cursed into appearing like a haggardly old woman and she soon leaves town to find a cure, bringing her to Howl’s moving castle.  There she meets Howl’s apprentice, Michael, and learns that she has certain magical talent of her own.  She eventually helps Howl in a final show-down between good and evil (or, perhaps, bad and worse?) against the Witch of the Waste, and learns that her curse might not have been all it –or she- appeared to be.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

Although a traditional young fantasy tale in many ways, Howl’s Moving Castle is very much about a young woman’s coming-of-age.  Just as Sophie is learning to appreciate herself – seeing herself as attractive for the first time and exchanging drab gray clothing for brighter hues, she is cursed and becomes a gnarled old woman.  Jones is exploring the nature of individuality and self-worth; only by becoming this older woman can Sophie begin to understand and appreciate who she is – a strong-willed, confident, powerful individual.  She begins to realize that she is not destined to be just “the eldest sibling” as tradition would have it.  Sophie discovers that she is in command of her own fate and that those around her, including her family and new friends, will love and respect her all the more as she embraces who she is and learns to respect herself.  The other characters in the story are equally deep, though they may appear flippant or standardized at first glance.  Wizard Howl, for instance, is an excellently drawn Byronic hero.  Seduction of young maidens is his modus operandi, so much so, in fact, that he is feared throughout the kingdom as the wizard who eats young girls’ hearts (taken literally by the people – which makes him a feared character, although in reality he is quite harmless and endearing, if not more than a bit vain).  The reader discovers through Howl’s assistant Michael, that Howl has never truly been in love with any of the women he has courted – and he knows this because Howl always looks so incredibly dashing when he goes out on the prowl.  Near to the end of the story, though, we realize poor Howl must have fallen head-over-heels for someone because, for the first time, he is totally disheveled. Ultimately, the characters are much deeper than they first appear to be; when the reader sits back and examines their purpose and their connections to other characters, the development of and sub-layers for each, but particularly the major characters, is quite striking.


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

One minor point of contention for me was that the smartness of the story did not quite seem to gel with the middle grade reading level of the prose.  It is, after all, a middle grade book – so making it readable by the prospective age group is absolutely paramount.  While I understand the primary audience is young readers, I couldn’t help but be a tiny (tiny) bit put-off by the sparse style and simple language, when the story itself is so witty and multi-layered.  Still, this is the smallest of small complaints because, in reality, Jones does what she sets out to do; she has produced a well-written, well-constructed, well-paced story for young readers, with added elements that give the book richness which older readers will enjoy and appreciate too.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this book, for book lovers, is that it is rife with literary allusions.  Jones references a plethora of authors and stories from the fantasy canon, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Arthurian Legend, and also from British literature, including Shakespeare and John Donne.  These little gems are delightful for those who recognize them, but also work well in the storyline in general, so young readers will appreciate their presence at face-value.  This type of sub-context, coupled with the major themes of love and destiny (Sophie is grappling with the fates, fighting to break the fairy tale mold placed on her as eldest sister, though on the surface she has seemed to resign herself to the traditional role) makes for a fascinatingly and surprisingly rich story for young (and older) readers.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Middle Grade

Interest: Fantasy, Magic, Family, Coming-of-Age, Sibling Rivalry, Love, Perception, Fairy Tale, Satire, Jealousy, Destiny.

Notable Quotes:

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

“I assure you, my friends, I am cone sold stober.”

“I must apologize for trying to bite you so often. In the normal way, I wouldn’t dream of setting teeth in a fellow countryman.”

This book was recommended to me by Amanda.