Friday, June 24, 2005

Abarat - not a pop group's pet

posted by Todd T @ 7:06 AM

A small town teenaged girl runs off into the prairie to get a break from her troubles, and finds some unexpected structures in the middle of nowhere that resemble a dilapidated wooden lighthouse and pier. When she climbs the lighthouse she ends up summoning in the sea from another world, and the adventure is on in a magical oceanic realm where each island is permanently set at one particular hour of the day. The Lord of Midnight is plotting, and our plucky lass will figure in somehow.

Clive Barker is a very visual writer, and this novel, aimed unabashedly at younger readers, is chockablock with marvels, centered on uniquely imaginative and strange creatures and settings. It does not possess the gravitas, nor quite the charm, of the best young-adult fantasies, and the while the tight spots our heroine gets into are tense and interesting, sometimes the way out feels more dxm than clever. Nevertheless there is fun in the parade of imagery, and it is a quick read. The prologue is sententious and portentous and I almost stopped there, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Speaking of Barker’s visual bent, he has done countless paintings which illustrate the hardback. There is one every three pages or so. Some are evocative; overall I’d say they are not bad but do not sweep me away. They do not resemble how I imagined things, in most cases. This raises the question of the merits, on balance, of illustrations in a book. Quite a few others that I have discussed this with prefer not to have illos, because they often clash with their own imaginations, and they prefer to let their minds run free. Others find very few illos to please them, and that they detract from the reading experience by their ugliness or banality. I too find that many either add little or clash with my own images, but I can live with it; they are very seldom a minus for me. Occasionally they are a big plus. Where do you stand?

I presume that Barker also designed the font for the title, which is pretty cool. Reads same upside down as right-side up.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Matter Of Britain

posted by Tim Walters @ 11:18 PM

Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave/The Hollow Hills/The Last Enchantment/The Wicked Day.

As far as I know, this was the first "realistic" historical-fiction treatment of the Arthur legend, and as far as I know, it's still the best (although I should probably read The Mists Of Avalon before coming to a firm conclusion). Making Merlin the first-person narrator is an ingenious device, and allows Stewart to begin her story completely outside the legend, with Merlin's childhood. Not only does she handle this brilliantly, but it allows her to develop a highly credible post-Roman Britain (complete with beautiful landscape descriptions) against which the events of the legend can be set (and to some extent subverted; although she's no tiresome rationalizer, the story is of a believable seed for the legends rather than a strict recounting thereof).

The Crystal Cave ends where the legend begins, with Uther sneaking into Tintagel to beget Arthur. The Hollow Hills then takes the place of The Sword in the Stone, albeit with Merlin still the focus rather than Arthur; The Last Enchantment takes us to Merlin's final destiny. The Wicked Day then completes the tragedy; it must, perforce, do without Merlin's narration. She substitutes a third-person omniscient viewpoint, which is rather less effective. Also, for some reason, the Grail legend is never dealt with, despite having been set up in TLE. It may be that she wrote TWD more out of obligation than inspiration.

I first read The Crystal Cave when I was 10 or so; I'm pleased to report that I still love it. The next two books have slightly more political intrigue and slightly less wonder, but are still first-rate. The Wicked Day is worthwhile, but not strictly necessary.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Changing Planes

posted by Tim Walters @ 9:39 PM

Ursula K. LeGuin, Changing Planes. A catalog of imaginary places, somewhat in the vein of Calvino's Invisible Cities, but (as you might expect from LeGuin) less archly postmodern and more gently fabulous (in the literal sense). The central conceit is basically a bad pun, but gives her a chance to write wittily about airport waiting rooms. The book is quite slight overall, but LeGuin's deft touch makes it thoroughly enjoyable, even when her fables have a touch of the obvious about them. I certainly prefer this to, say, The Telling.

The Collector

posted by Tim Walters @ 9:26 PM

Let it be noted for archival purposes that I actually finished reading the book or so ago...

John Fowles, The Collector. Like every other Fowles book I've read, this is both excellent and quite different from all the others. Apparently this made quite a splash in 1963, and I can see why--I don't think first-person accounts by creepy criminals were anywhere near as common then, and I rather doubt it's been done better since. Our protagonist is a butterfly collector who, having won the football pools, decides to move up to a new level of obsession by kidnapping art student Miranda. He doesn't want to rape or kill her--he just wants have her as his "guest."

It would be telling to reveal what happens, but suffice it to say that (1) the tension is immense; (2) the characters are extremely vivid; (3) the book takes a startling turn, not of events but in the manner of telling, about halfway through; and (4) the ending is exactly right.

I highly recommend it, but try not to read up about it first. This is one where the less you know going in, the better. It's hard to believe that it was his first novel.