Tuesday, October 13, 2009

By the light of the guttering candle

It's been a while since I updated the books that The Daughter and I have been reading at bedtimes, so here are some capsules. Some of the most satisfying and entertaining reading I've done lately has come at night, as I read these books aloud to The Daughter, one chapter per night. What's nice about reading aloud is that you can't skim. At all. When reading silently, I do tend to slip into skimming once in a while, if I sense that I'm reading a passage that may not entirely be crucial to the action. Reading aloud re-directs my reading attention to each individual word, and I find myself noticing some more details occasionally that I might otherwise not notice. I also notice word rhythm a lot more, and which words actually work together sonically. This fascinates me.

A problem that occasionally crops up deals with dialogue, particular in instances where two characters are conversing. It's not uncommon to find authors simply drop dialogue attribution altogether for a bit, since it should be easy for a reader to keep track of who's talking. But I wonder sometimes if that's true when reading this kind of thing aloud, so sometimes I'll hedge a bit and throw in my own attribution, a "he said" or "she said" where the author didn't. I suppose I could adopt other voices for different characters, but...well, no, I don't want to do that.

Now for specific books:

:: Over the last couple of years, when I've been in the kid-lit sections at the local bookstores, I've noticed a glut of pirate tales on the shelves. I suppose the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean films has been the major factor here. We've picked up a couple of these titles, but the only one we've read thus far is Pirate Curse, by Kai Meyer. Meyer is a German author whose books are translated for English audiences, and Pirate Curse is the first installment in a trilogy.

Of the pirate books I've seen all over, all of them seem to employ supernatural goings-on. I'm not sure why this is the case, since surely a compelling pirate story could be written for kids (or adults) without ghosts or magic or whatever. I seem to recall that a fellow named Robert Louis Something wrote a highly-regarded story about a pirate whose name went on to grace a chain of fast food joints that offer deep-fried seafood, but I digress. Pirate Curse involves just that: pirates who are cursed.

As is always the case with children's books, our heroes are children. A pirate girl named Jolly is what pirates call a "Polliwog": she has the ability to walk on water. When her ship is ambushed and sunk in a trap, she is the only survivor, escaping to an island where she meets a farmboy named Munk, who also turns out to be a Polliwog. Munk's parents are killed in another supernatural attack a short while later, and Jolly and Munk are fleeing for their lives, falling in with a mysterious man called the Ghost Trader as they try to evade the growing evil force called "The Maelstrom".

This is a very exciting book, and we're looking forward to returning to this series in the future. Its protagonists are engaging and sympathetic, there's the requisite mystery of the Ghost Trader, the usual mysterious figure of authority whom I'm sure will turn out to be far more than he seems, there are fun battles and daring escapes. At times I did wonder if the book might have been a bit on the dark side, but The Daughter seemed to take it in stride. Recommended, if you like creepy pirates-and-ghosts tales with a lot of adventure in them.

:: Some time ago we read a book called Larklight, by Philip Reeve. This book looked so intriguing on the shelf at Borders that I picked it up, in hardcover, knowing nothing about it. It is a steampunk space opera that assumes that the universe actually operated the way science thought it operated back in the Victorian era: the luminiferous ether exists, people can breathe in space, and so on. The spaceships are basically sea galleons in space, powered faster than light by traveling the "Golden Roads" when someone performs an alchemical operation called the "Chemical Wedding". The book featured the adventures of a brother and sister, Art and Myrtle Mumby, who live in a space mansion called Larklight. They fall in with a space pirate named Jack Havock (I think we need a moratorium on pirates named "Jack") and his crew as they investigate a threat to Earth by a race of evil spider-like creatures. They also meet a spy for the British Empire (which now, naturally, extends into space) named Sir Richard Burton (whom, I suppose, is not translating the 1001 Nights) and a number of other fine people, few of whom are actually human. Larklight was a fabulously fun read, and we dutifully kept an eye out for the promised sequel.

Since then there have been two sequels: Starcross and Mothstorm. I don't want to say too much about the plots of these books, except to note that Reeve's wild and wooly Victorian steampunk worldbuilding continues to be a delight. We have asteroids connected by a railroad, time traveling, crusty space sailors from spaceports on the moons of Jupiter, strange things on the planet Mercury and stranger things beyond Neptune, diseases that turn people into trees, and more. These books are the most pure fun reading I've found since the early volumes in the Harry Potter series. The books are written in the first person, mostly from Art's point of view, with occasional chapters from Myrtle's point of view; Reeve very nicely maintains a completely different voice for each character. There are lots of footnotes which Reeve uses ingeniously to do his infodumping, and the books are illustrated nicely.

There was one spot at which I wanted to reach into the book and slap Reeve. During a space battle sequence, he wrote a paragraph in which he describes a ship "shaking, rattling, and rolling" as it evades "great balls of fire" and the characters suffer through a "whole lot of shaking going on". I groaned and then had to stop reading to explain why I was groaning to the kid. I wish Reeve hadn't done that.

So, if you're wondering how a Victorian steampunk space opera can possibly work, check this series out.

:: Some time ago we read Lloyd Alexander's classic Chronicles of Prydain. The Daughter loved it, although she never really said that she loved it. I know because it comes up in conversation now and then, such as when a character named "The Bard" in the book we're reading right now came up and she said, "You mean, like Fflewddur Fflam?" So I was happy to use my reading time with her to revisit Alexander's less-noted Westmark Trilogy, which I think is the equal of Prydain. Thus far we've read the first two books, Westmark and The Kestrel.

In the Prydain books, Alexander explored themes of coming-of-age, of the nature of heroism, and the nature of duty. While some of those themes are revisited in Westmark, Alexander is more interested here in more mature notions: freedom and its limits, the best type of government, whether violence is ever justifiable.

Set in a kingdom called Westmark, the era is roughly analogous to the French Revolution; pistols, muskets and bayonets are the weapons of choice here. In the first chapter we meet a young man named Theo who works as an apprentice to a printer in a time when freedom of the press is greatly curtailed. He quickly finds himself on the run from the law, taking refuge with a con-man named Las Bombas and his dwarf companion Musket; along the way they meet a street urchin girl named Mickle and a revolutionary beloved by the sophisticated city youth named Florian. He also comes to the attention of the kingdom's chief minister, Cabbarus, and gradually Theo finds himself in the midst of turmoil engulfing the whole of Westmark.

This trilogy is as much about politics and concerns of adults as it is about coming of age and heroism. Alexander doesn't shrink from the fact that many who are called "heroes" are people who have committed acts of questionable heroism for reasons that weren't entirely noble; he also doesn't shrink from the fact that great conflicts can arise between people who are genuinely trying to make a good world as best they can, and he presents few, if any, easy answers. At times the story gets pretty dark, actually, but it's still exciting, briskly paced, and full of memorable characters.

I'll report back when we finish the trilogy.

1 comment:

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

We are still at the picture book stage just graduating to more involved tales. I wish someone would create a superhero who had the power to not care what other people thought.

Trying to convey this lesson would be easier if say Spiderman practiced it.