Author: Lloyd Alexander
The Prydain Chronicles, vol. 1
Taran dreams of a life of heroism, convinced his real life in tiny Caer Dallben is anything but. While daring swordfights spark his imagination, he finds himself Assistant Pigkeeper to an oracular pig who, while quite nice in her own way, has never done anything exciting. Or at least, not until one fateful day when all the creatures in Caer Dallben started acting terrified and ran away . . . a day when the Horned King rode. Chasing after the pig, Hen Wen, into the forest, Taran soon finds himself dragged into an adventure as big as he could have ever hoped . . . only, heroics in truth seem a lot more like hard work, sacrifice, exhaustion, hunger, and conviction than like anything he ever expected. On the course of his journey, Taran meets numerous people who show him what true valor looks like: Prince Gwydion, the lovely Eilonwy, the creature Gurgi, travelling bard (and notorious liar) Fflewddur Fflam, to name a few. In the end, Taran’s whole view of life will change . . . and you never know, he might develop a touch of heroism himself.
I love Lloyd Alexander’s writing, and his Prydain books in particular. There’s just something about his matter-of-fact, pragmatic, yet somehow satirical voice that’s both captivating and extremely funny. His plot is exciting, but I must say, it’s the people that stand out, and the things they learn (which are almost always things we need to learn ourselves as well). Gwydion is a true hero–by which I mean he’s a servant who puts others before himself. Gurgi, with all of his crunchings and munchings is quite the enigma, someone you could easily feel sorry for but who’s actually braver and more loyal than most anyone when it comes down to it. And the princess Eilonwy . . . Alexander’s female leads are always impressive and a treat to read, and Eilonwy’s no exception. I admire her strength of character, and I think her metaphorical way of speaking adds both humor and depth to the story. Poor Fflewddur . . . you’d think he’s mostly there for comic effect, but then there are moments when he truly surprises you. It’s a delight to see the characters growing throughout their journey. I LOVE The Book of Three and would highly recommend it to anyone upper elementary to adult.
Author: Jasper Fforde
The Chronicles of Kazam, vol. 3
My rating: 5 of 5
As usual, Jennifer Strange has her work cut out for her. As though being the under-age leader of a successful guild of magic-workers (all older than herself) weren’t enough, now she’s got a flesh-eating monster that they accidentally set loose on the town to catch. And one of her best workers managed to get herself held for ransom in the neighboring kingdom–a kingdom known for being intentionally dangerous. Oh, and she’s got a bratty princess to babysit, AND the most powerful wizard of the past few centuries (he’s lived that long) is threatening war against Kazam unless she finds a mystic jewel that may or may not exist! Time to declare a quest, for sure. Why is life never simple?
Ever since I first discovered Fforde’s Chronicles of Kazam, I have consistently been delighted beyond all possible expectations, and I must say that in The Eye of Zoltar he outdid himself. The combination of humor, quirk, and thrilling adventure is balanced perfectly, making this a quest tale with something for everyone. Added to that, you have all the fun and amusing details and satire that so characterize Fforde’s writing, and the Chronicles in particular. The characters as well make this a tale to remember, and even the ones who start out being annoying rather grow on you. (And then you’ve got the characters who start out annoying, grow ever more annoying, and eventually get their just desserts to universal cheers.) Because (spoilers) a large portion of this volume takes place out of country, a number of the characters from the previous volumes don’t show up much–I really missed Tiger’s constant presence, for instance. And I will warn that this volume is kind of dark–not that the previous volumes were all sunshine and rainbows, but you know. . . . In spite of that, I think The Eye of Zoltar is an excellent fantasy, and I would highly recommend it. And hey, it comes with a promise of a follow-up volume which is bound to be more cheerful, right?
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Illustrator: Ros Asquith
I think the Weasley twins would be proud. In The Skiver’s Guide, renowned author Diana Wynne Jones crafts a witty how-to book on avoiding unnecessary work in all aspects of life. It covers everything from general techniques like acting dreamy or becoming ill to specifics like tips for avoiding homework or dealing with specific family members. This book is delightfully multi-layered. On the one hand, it is written in an extremely straightforward manner–and could be taken quite seriously. Actually, there probably are tips in it that you could put to good use. On the other hand, there’s definitely a tongue-in-cheek feel to the whole thing–you could read it as one big gag (I did). Either way, I think you’ll find The Skiver’s Guide to be an interesting and intelligent little volume.
Author: Philip Pullman
A lonely, older couple find their lives turned upside down when they take in a little boy wearing a page’s uniform and making a most extraordinary claim: “I was a rat.” The boy, who they dub Roger, certainly behaves very rattily–gnawing and eating anything at hand, fearing cats, and having no idea about proper manners. Whatever he may have been, he is certainly a boy now, and old Bob and Joan are glad to accept him as-is . . . only the rest of the country might not take to their ratty boy as readily, especially when the media gets involved. And when things look their darkest, Roger finds an advocate in perhaps the most unexpected person possible–an event which gets its own media twist!
Philip Pullman never ceases to amaze or amuse; he’s a wonderful author! I Was a Rat! is perhaps one of his most unusual works–an extraordinary outtake on the classic Cinderella story, actually, although you won’t see that until the very end. The story is imaginative, touching, and funny–as well as being an excellent satire of the media and their effects on the public’s opinions. Roger is an extremely original character, exactly what you would expect from someone who had been a rat and was magically transformed into a human boy with complete capability but no experience. But beyond his rattiness, Roger is also a really good kid and an interesting one. The variety of other characters in the story is also excellent. Really, I would highly recommend I Was a Rat! to anyone, especially if you enjoy sweet, humorous, and satirical storytelling at its best!
Author: Bill Willingham/Illustrators: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Daniel Vozzo, & James Jean/Letterer: Todd Klein
Fables, vol. 2
Rose Red and her boyfriend Jack have been caught trying to evade repaying a large debt by faking Rose’s death. As part of her punishment, Rose gets dragged along by her sister (and Chief Operating Officer of Fabletown) ,Snow White, to the farm in upstate New York where the less human-like fables live in relative isolation. It’s supposed to be a routine inspection, but from the moment the sisters arrive, things seem to go awry. As a matter of fact, it seems they’ve stumbled right into the middle of an insurrection, no less!
As far as comic-book-style graphic novels go, I think Fables is one of my favorites so far. The idea of pulling classic fairy tale characters into contemporary New York is intriguing, and Willingham’s execution is flawless. Animal Farm continues the story following Legends in Exile nicely–although the story itself isn’t at all what I would have expected. Seriously, if you were to take George Orwell’s Animal Farm and dump a bunch of fairy tale characters in it, you’d have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in this graphic novel. It’s weird, but it works surprisingly well. The story shows sides of Snow White’s character that you wouldn’t normally see, and I think in that regard, it serves to flesh out her character (even though she was already a vivid and complex individual before). This episode of the story was more violent and political than I personally prefer, but it was still quite excellently written–full of complex characters and drawn in quite an attractive style (for a graphic novel). For mature readers who enjoy graphic novels, I think Fables: Animal Farm is both an exciting and a mentally-engaging tale–particularly for the more politically minded.
Focus Features with Relativity Media
Written & Directed by Shane Acker/Produced by Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov, Jim Lemley, & Dana Ginsburg/Music by Deborah Lurie
When he first looks out on the world through his man-made eyes, 9 awakens (or perhaps one might more aptly say, is born) into a world very different from our own. Man has finally been overtaken by the machines he has made, and a tiny band of burlap-and-clockwork homunculi are all that remains of the spirit of man. Only, when 9 arrives on the scene, the last of the tiny karakuri to awake, he finds the others tremulous in fear of the monster-machines roaming the devastated world. Right from the start, his ideas are antithetical to the current leader’s, and 9 is faced with the challenge of pulling the others together to fight back . . . if he can even be sure that’s the right course of action.
I found 9 to be a strangely interesting movie. It’s strange and dark and somewhat satirical, yet also ethereal and darkly beautiful at times. There’s an extent to which the characters are somewhat stereotypical–types of a sort–but I get the impression they’re meant to be so. 9 himself gives out something of an “everyman” sort of vibe, but one you can respect as well. I really love the twins (eccentrics who keep the library and never actually speak). The animation is solid CG, again, attractive but very dark–like a super-depressing version of WALL-E, or something. I don’t think I’d recommend 9 for everyone (certainly not for younger audiences; it’s very appropriately PG-13 just for the scariness), but for those interested in a dark, frightening, and quirky animated movie, you might find it interesting.