Friday, November 30, 2012

Sara's Library: The Emerald Atlas

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
Book one in The Books of Beginning trilogy
Knopf 2011
The P. orphans (surname unknown/withheld), Kate, Michael, and Emma, have been shuffled from orphanage to orphanage for as long as they can remember, ever since a deadly accident robbed them of their parents on a Christmas Eve ten years ago.  After being kicked out of their orphanage, the siblings are taken in by the mysterious Dr. Pym, who lives in a mansion in the dying town of Cambridge Falls.  While exploring the house, the kids discover a strange book and begin to uncover the secret behind the town's current status.  Eldest sibling, Kate, has the ability to time-travel via photographs, and through this new power, the group uncovers the sinister secrets behind the town's decay, including a Russian countess and vanishing children.

While the description of the book can sound a bit generic and there are definitely pieces borrowed from other children's fantasy novels (orphans, a stay at a mysterious house, a wise old benefactor who happens to be a wizard, etc.), Mr. Stephens weaves these tropes together expertly to create an ambitious introduction to his series, The Books of Beginning.  My only real complaint is that I had difficulties placing the time period in which the novel takes place.  The time-travel bits seem turn-of-the-century, but in the present the kids use a Polaroid camera.  I can understand not wanting to be too specific with the periods, but even a decade named would have helped me.

Honestly, I didn't have the highest of expectations when I began reading this for my book club, but I ended up reading it in one sitting.  The pacing is very good, in this regard; I never found myself being bored by useless or endless exposition.  Now, I will say, that I am very much a fan of fantasy, so being able to connect this work to predecessors in the genre wasn't the drawback for me that it may be to some.  It's not wholly original, but what it does, it does very well, and the way Mr. Stephens handles time-travel is intriguing.  And, anywhere there are Scottish dwarves, I'm there.  I would definitely recommend this to young fantasy readers who have finished Narnia and Harry Potter.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sara's Library: A Tale Dark and Grimm

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
Dutton Juvenile 2010
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year 2010

As someone rather enthralled by fairy tales, I had been very excited to read Mr. Gidwitz's novel, especially after a number of my Goodreads friends rated it highly.  It's not that I disliked it; I enjoyed it for what it was. I think I was just expecting something more.

The novel takes a number of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, both familiar and more obscure ("Faithful Johannes," one of my favorites is the very first tale) and connects them by the conceit that the brother and sister (or sometimes brothers) in the various stories were always the same children: Hansel and Gretel.  Thus, the events in one story often lead directly into the events of another.  It's a great concept, but I had a few issues with the novel.

Perhaps because Mr. Gidwitz is attempting to emulate the style of storytelling used in the original tales, perhaps for other reasons, there is little character development, even with the protagonists.  The peripheral characters fall into two groups: those who aid the siblings and those who try to harm them.  So, I suppose this is a continuation of the very basic notions of good and evil present in the original tales.  However, I feel that modern readers are more sophisticated in their understanding of motivation and morality and would have preferred better representation of life's grey areas.

My other issue with the book was the frequent breaking of the fourth wall by an irritating narrator whose delight in reminding readers that this isn't Disney and that violence will happen truly grated on my nerves.  Unlike the narrator in A Series of Unfortunate Events, who was amusingly snarky and often useful in explaining vocabulary words to child readers, the narrator's presence here is completely unnecessary after the introduction.

While I appreciate what Mr. Gidwitz is attempting to do with this work and hope that he succeeds in sparking an interest in folk lore in the grade school set, adult readers (especially those whose interests in fairy tales tend more toward the scholarly) may be disappointed.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Once Upon a Portland?

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 6: "Tallahassee"

As mentioned in my previous post, I am, unfortunately, rather behind on my posts due to events in real life.  So it should come as no surprise that I am behind in watching the television shows I frequently view.  This episode aired several weeks ago, but I only just got around to watching it.

Despite being titled "Tallahassee," the majority of the episode takes place (in flashback) in Portland, Oregon.  Is there some mandate that all fairy tale television shows must use Portland in some manner?  I half-expected Monroe to make an appearance.  Our heroine, Emma Swan, steals her now-familiar VW Bug, only to find a man, Neal Cassaday, in the backseat.  Cassaday then tells her that he, too, had stolen the car and they soon become a small-time Bonnie and Clyde outfit robbing convenience stores.  Love soon follows.
However, Cassaday is wanted for robbing a watch shop at which he was once employed back in Phoenix.  Emma, determined to make things work, offers to fence the watches so they may be together.  But August shows up and things go differently than planned.

In the fairy tale present, Emma and Hook climb a beanstalk to the stronghold of the last remaining giant in order to steal a compass.  Somewhat predictably, Emma does not trust Hook (nor should she) and she abandons him to the giant, who viewers learn is not the monster he is made out to be in tales.

Another interesting episode, which I'm sure pleased viewers longing to know more of Emma's backstory.  I was surprised that an episode sans both Rumpel and Regina was able to carry itself so well.  Like many other viewers, I am curious as to Cassaday's true identity, as his name is likely a pseudonym taken from the Beat author.  Without spoiling too much for those who have yet to see this episode, there is also scene in which he calmly accepts a magical act, which would be rather unbelievable for a mundane to do.  It was also wonderful to see this episode link back to the beginning scene of the season opener.  The pieces of the puzzle are certainly adding up.  One just wonders how much longer the series can sustain itself after its biggest revelations are presented.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sara's Library: Anna Dressed in Blood

First of all, apologies for the lack of updates.  While I had started this post almost two weeks ago, I found myself suddenly very busy with real life.  Between staffing a local convention and a couple of job interviews, I just haven't had time to work on the blog.  I'm hoping to catch up over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
Tor Teen 2011
YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults 2012

There have been few books I can recall where my initial reaction to the premise and my final reaction are so completely disparate.  Going in, all I really knew about the plot was that the protagonist, Cas Lowood, went around the country (and Canada, apparently, given the novel's Ontario setting) slaying ghosts with his father's magic dagger (an athame).  It sounded like a lame attempt at writing a prose version of Bleach.  I have never been more wrong about a book.

Shortly after traveling to Thunder Bay, Ontario, in order to rid the town of the infamous Anna Dressed in Blood, events spiral out of Cas's control.  Not only does a prank played upon him by the school football team result in the death of one of the jocks at the hands of Anna, but Cas, so accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle that is part of his job, begins to develop attachments.  He befriends a psychic witch-boy and the most popular girl in school, both of whom insist upon tagging along during his midnight slayings, and eventually learns that he cannot complete his task without the aid of others.  Yet, more interestingly, he develops a strong bond with the ghost herself, Anna, whom he learns is a tragic, fragile creature trapped inside her place of death.

While Ms. Blake's work never shies away from the violence and gore that denote the work as horror, it is her juxtaposition of horror with sarcastic, referential humor that sets this work apart from others in the genre. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will definitely see shades of the Scooby Gang here, which is all for the better.  Without the humor, this tale would likely have proven too grim for the average reader.

The characters, especially Cas and Anna, are well-thought out and complex for the book's relatively short length, and the brisk pacing ensures that readers never tire of the dark events that could easily have become mired in a lengthier work.  A new sequel, Girl of Nightmare, continues the story, which ends somewhat abruptly, and promises to give fans another thrill ride, if the reviews I've read are any indication.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Dream Factory: Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie directed by Tim Burton
Walt Disney Pictures 2012
Rated PG
Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Nominee 2013
BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film Nominee 2013
Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film Nominee 2013
Annie Award for Best Animated Feature Nominee 2013

I can clearly remember being seven and first seeing advertisements for The Nightmare Before Christmas in my Disney Adventures magazine.  Mr. Burton's ghoulish ink illustrations, used as promotional art, captured my imagination and I began to entreat my parents to take me to the film, though no one else in the family was particularly interested in going to see it.  The film, my first experience with stop motion animation, ignited a lifelong love for the art form, as well as for the story's writer, Mr. Burton.

Since 1993, Mr. Burton has both inspired me and disappointed me, but as I sat in the cinema waiting for his latest creation to begin, I had high hopes that Frankenweenie would belong to the former group and I was not disappointed.

The film follows the same storyline as that of the 1984 short (which I have fond childhood memories of watching every Halloween on the Disney Channel).  When Victor Frankenstein's dog is hit by a car, he attempts to resurrect him with electricity on a stormy night and succeeds.  The film, needing to flesh out the plot, introduces a science fair at Victor's school, and discovering Victor's project, the other students (all of them parodies of some horror figure or other), resurrect their own pets.  But, their motivations being quite different than Victor's, the pets rampage through the town and Victor must devise a way to stop them.

I wasn't expecting this film to be a comedy, but I found myself laughing aloud quite frequently at the numerous horror references sprinkled throughout the film.  Most of these jokes went over the heads of the children in attendance, and I think my husband and I were the only ones laughing most of the time due to the demographics of our particular screening.  But the relationship between Victor and Sparky, his dog, are something all people with pets can relate to, so the references shouldn't prevent non-horror fans from enjoying the film.

Aside from what felt, to me, like a mixed message about science and the failure to teach younger viewers a valuable lesson about letting go, the film hit all the right notes.  This is Mr. Burton as himself, filled with whimsical nostalgia and none of the soulless commercialism of his last few films.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sara's Library: This Dark Endeavor

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel
Simon & Schuster 2011
ALA Teens' Top Ten Nominee 2012
Bram Stoker Award for Young Adult Novel Nominee 2012

I have been a fan of the macabre and gothic for as long as I can remember.  I think I first read Poe in third grade, which I followed up the next year with Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris.  Although Frankenstein was assigned reading during my senior year of high school, I had read it years earlier.  So when I began to see reviews for Kenneth Oppel's prequel, This Dark Endeavor, I knew I had to read it.

In this prequel, Victor Frankenstein has an identical twin brother, Konrad, who he believes to be his better at just about everything.  When Konrad becomes ill with an unknown (and perhaps incurable disease), Victor, his cousin Elizabeth, and their friend Henry decide to save him...through alchemy.  The trio discover a secret library of alchemical texts in the Frankenstein manor, but cannot decipher the archaic texts.  Learning of a disgraced alchemist, Dr. Polidori, living in the slums of Geneva, the group seek out his aid and soon embark on dangerous adventures for the ingredients required for the Elixir of Life.

Meanwhile, the family solicits the advice of an experimental doctor who determines that Konrad's disease is what we now know as leukemia.  While he is able to improve Konrad's condition, he cannot cure it, driving Victor to try yet harder to create the Elixir.

But is it truly brotherly love that drives Victor into this frenzy?  Or the desire to excel at something which his brother never can?  Darker yet, is Victor's secret desire to usurp his brother, especially in the heart of Elizabeth.

One of my only qualms with this book is that it doesn't stylistically mirror its "descendant."  While that marvelous work was an epistolary novel, this one is not.  The prose attempts to affect the style of the period, though I did find Victor's sense of humour a tad out of place, feeling somewhat modern at times.  While the characters are not the most complex or original, often falling into tropes of young adult fiction (snarky protagonist, headstrong girl, etc.), the work substantially reworks Ms. Shelley's story, leading readers to piece together that Victor's later creation is not a mishmash at all, but his brother.  Given the love triangle developing between the brothers and Elizabeth, one can imagine there will be bad blood between the two before events lead to the Modern Prometheus.

Mr. Oppel has already written a second work in the prequel sequence, titled Such Wicked Intent and released at the end of August.  While I've not yet had a chance to read it, I certainly intend to, and if the title is any indication, we can expect it to grow considerably darker.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Once Upon a Geneva?

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 5: "The Doctor"

Having been a fan of Once Upon a Time since it began airing last season, I like to guess the fairy tale counterparts of the Storybrooke community before they are revealed.  One character whose identity had been perplexing viewers since the series' inception was Dr. least until last week's episode.  Within the first ten or fifteen minutes I had my suspicions as to his true identity, given the plot of the episode, which was Dr. Whale attempting to bring Regina's dead lover Daniel back from the dead.  Add in his Storybrooke name (an allusion to the director of the 1931 film version) and what do you get...Victor Frankenstein.

While some viewers may be left scratching their heads as to why a character from a science fiction/horror novel written in 1818 is a character on a fairy tale show, I think it was a rather interesting move on the part of the writers.  First of all, it reminds me of the comic Fables and its spin-off Jack of Fables, as its author Bill Willingham included various public domain characters and even genres themselves as characters.  We've already seen characters from legend (Mulan) and children's fantasy novels -- which some consider literary fairy tales -- (Jefferson/Mad Hatter and Hook).  While I wasn't particularly expecting Frankenstein, I think given Rumple's scheme of traveling to a world without magic to find his son, this new addition is an interesting twist.  I personally have been hoping for Oz and Narnia characters to turn up, so we'll see what happens.

As for Victor Frankenstein, he's been turning up in a number of places recently, not just Sunday night television.  Look for posts on Frankenweenie and the novel This Dark Endeavor soon.