Thursday, October 22, 2015

MINI-REVIEWS | Middle-grade Mayhem - Cathrynne Valente, Maryrose Wood and Michael Ende

At the very least, the three Incorrigible Children books could have used their own post but I am so far behind on reviews and practicing brevity in writing is probably a good thing. Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Cathrynne M. Valente
Publication Year: 2011
Genre: Middle-Grade, Fantasy
Series: Fairyland #1
Awards: Locus Award for Best Young Adult (2012), Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SF&F (2012), plus many nominations
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Cathrynne M. Valente

I have to say this book didn't initially grab me. It felt like a cold and poetic recitation of imaginative wonders with no heart and I wasn't terribly engaged with it through the first third of the story.  At some point though, it totally crept up on me and clawed its way into my heart. Gruesome imagery but it explains the effect perfectly and is a nice tribute to A through L, a wyverary (half Wyvern, half Library) and magnificent friend to the protagonist in the book.  I just listened to part of an interview with Valente where she mentioned that A through L is probably the most beloved character she's ever created and I believe it!  September, the protagonist, is always trying to gently suggest to him that it is highly unlikely that his father is, in fact, a library but A through L steadfastly ignores all hints:).  He's adorable. 

The basic story follows a young Midwestern girl named September who is whisked away to fairyland by a Green Wind.  Once there she meets many unusual folks and creatures and sets herself a task which leads to her circumnavigating Fairyland.  It read very much like an Alice in Wonderland type of adventure with very strange folk and happenstance around every corner.   

It’s a prodigious display of imagination, which I found charming, confusing and, at first, a little boring all at the same time.  Valente just seemed to be biding her time, stretching her imaginative muscles, in preparation for taking the story in the direction she wished.  Some of the seemingly random, confusing happenings in the first part of the book become integral parts of the plot at the end.  It’s neatly done and awesome.  As September develops friends and more direction to her time in Fairyland, I quickly became more and more absorbed until I was quite sad to see it end and subsequently am excited there are more of September's adventures to come!  This was one of those books that is a lesson to me that it can be worthwhile to stick through slower parts and give a book a chance.  I just wish there was a formula for figuring out which books are worth it and which…aren’t.

FINAL VERDICT: Imaginative and sharp, scary and charming.  It started off a little slow for me but was ultimately extremely satisfying and I will definitely be continuing with the series! 4 out of 5 stars.

o - O - o

Publication Year: 2010, 2012, 2013
Genre: Middle-Grade, Fantasy
Series: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #s 2, 3 and 4
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren

The fact that I have read three more books in this series without reviewing them on the blog is evidence that I have not given it it's well deserved praises.  I absolutely ADORE this series of books.  Probably my favorite middle-grade series that I've read in a long time.  I wish I knew kids in the correct age group on which to force the whole series.  It is, in a word, delightful.  Or maybe a better word is charming.  It’s both – It is whole barrels full of delightfully charming.  I will now proceed to overuse these words, shamelessly, throughout this review.

The general premise of all the books is of a young charming governess, Penelope Lumley, who comes to a manor house in Victorian England to take charge of three children who were raised by wolves; Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia Incorrigible.  There is a big overall mystery that runs through the whole series about Penelope and the Incorrigibles' origins and there are also several smaller mysteries that are explored. The Hidden Gallery has Penelope and the Incorrigibles in London meeting new friends, attending a show about pirates and discovering a Hidden Gallery in a museum that is chock full of clues.  The Unseen Guest sees Penelope's employer's widowed mother coming to Ashton Place with a new suitor and an Ostrich. The Interrupted Tale is probably my favorite and follows Penelope and the Incorrigibles to Penelope's Alma mater, The Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females.  

The books are laugh out loud funny with a mix of hilarious hijinks and sly wit, puns, AND plays on words.  Every ridiculous thing you can think of happens; there are orphans, pirates, chickens that dance, cannibalism, conspiracies and intrigue all told with an aim to poke gentle and affectionate fun at the literature of the Victorian era. The books also aim to do some education in the most entertaining way possible.  As Penelope teaches her pupils, the target age group (and let's be honest, I) learn some delightful concept that Wood has chosen to focus on in each book.  For example in The Interrupted Tale, poetic meter, particularly Iambic Pentameter, is being taught to the Incorrigibles and it is brought up regularly throughout the narrative and ends up being key to the plot's progression.   It's completely charming.

While the books themselves are delight incarnate, credit and praise must be heaped on Katherine Kellgren.  Her narration of these books is nothing short of a masterpiece.  She captures the purposefully over-the-top tone of the books just perfectly.  Her voices are magnificent, her singing is fantastic, I’m pretty sure she could walk on water if she tried.  Seriously, she’s amazing and, if at all possible, I recommend consuming these books on audio.  You can listen to a sample of the audio at this link.

FINAL VERDICT: These books are the very epitome of delightful and charming and Katherine Kellgren's reading is the big honking cherry on top. 4 out of 5 Stars.
o - O - o
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
Publication Year: 1979
Genre: Middle-Grade, Fantasy
Awards: Some German Awards
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrator: Gerard Doyle

The Neverending Story is a classic book of fantasy written by a German author.  It must have been an immediate smash hit because within 5 years of the book's release an English speaking film was produced.  I was at the perfect age to encounter and ADORE the film.  And the song by Limahl.   Seriously you should click that link - the video is pretty hilarious and Mr Limahl probably looks back at it in embarrassed horror - but also there is a 2 second clip of Atreyu screaming Artax's name as the horse sinks into the swamp and it totally made tears spring to my eyes.  2 seconds. It's heartbreaking.  Anyway, this is my first experience of the book.

Sadly, I really did not love it.  I think in the end my feeling is that the book probably works for its target age group but it did not work for me as an adult. The movie only covers the first half of the book and for good reason.  The second half features Bastian becoming a horrible person and was ruined for me by the heavy-handed moralizing about how great power corrupts.  The whole book is incredibly imaginative but it also felt very cold.  Basically it struck me the same way as the first third of The Girl Who Circumnavigated... which I discussed above but unlike that book the characters never developed and never became real for me.  So, I dispassionately marveled at the use of imagination and the vivid pictures that are created by Ende's descriptions but found the characters not very interesting and the plot rather plodding.  It felt like an overly long Aesop's Fable with the characters being solely representative and never feeling real.  The plot is often explained in plodding expository dialogue where (usually) Bastian or Atreyu ask lots of questions which are answered by another in-the-know character.  The cardboard characters and spelled out exposition would likely not bother a 8-12 year old but I was pretty bored.   

FINAL VERDICT:  I was sadly pretty bored by this fantasy "classic".  I am still pretty sure that I love the movie though!  2 out of 5 Stars. 

So I'm sure there are a LOT of folks out there that will disagree with me on The Neverending Story, so let me know where I'm wrong:)!  Any other fans of The Incorrigible Children series?  Have you read them with any appropriately aged children and what did they think?  How goes the rest of the Fairyland series - better or worse than the first?  Lots of questions for which I need answers!

No comments:

Post a Comment