Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Mortal Instruments

I’ve been hearing people rave about Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series for awhile now. Part of this is probably because I follow Cassandra Clare on tumblr. Even aside from her posts, though, fan art and references to Clary and Jace, two of the main characters, have been ubiquitous. Despite all the hype, I still wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. After all, the first book is called City of Bones. While I love fantasy novels, I tend to shy away from grittier, creepier fantasy and paranormal books. And how can book with a title like City of Bones be anything except creepy? Reservations aside, I decided to go out on a limb and try it. After all, I hadn’t thought The Hunger Games was “my thing” either, and I loved those books.

Trailer for the Upcoming City of Bones Movie:

City of Bones revolves around Clary, a fifteen-year-old girl prone to arguing with her horribly overprotective mother. One night at an all-ages club, Clary happens to be the only witness to a murder… except that the body vanished in a puff of smoke, and Clary seems to be the only one who can see the murderers, a group of three teenagers with strange weapons. The next day, Clary’s mother is abducted and her home ransacked, leaving Clary to navigate the dangerous world of demons, vampires, and werewolves on her own. Well, not completely on her own. Though her mother is gone, Clary finds she has plenty of friends, both old and new, ready to fight on her side.

My self-control is not what it should be when it comes to books. I did not just ready City of Bones last week. I also read the next two books in the series, City of Ashes and City of Glass. I won’t give plot synopses for the latter two books, as each would contain spoilers. I was surprised, however, at the ending of City of Glass. Two other books have been published in the series, and the sixth and final book hasn’t been released yet. However, City of Glass resolves pretty much all of the ongoing plotlines, making the first three novels in the series seem like their own separate trilogy.

I think what I enjoyed most about this book was the characters. Clary’s best friend, Simon, may have no connection with the shadowy demons and creatures that have come into Clary’s life, but he doesn’t let that stop him from being there for her. My other personal favorite character is Alec, one of the teens staying at the Institute where the Shadowhunters, or demon-hunters, of New York City stay. Alec does not take well to Clary, someone uneducated in demons, magic, and fighting, barging in on all their missions. To complicate matters, Alec and Clary are both interested in the same guy, the arrogant Jace Wayland. I always enjoy characters who manage antagonize the main character without actually being antagonists.

On the downside for the novel, while the books had very fast-paced plots (leading to the series’ somewhat addictive, can’t-put-it-down nature), some of the plot twists were predictable, particularly in City of Glass. I also was frustrated by Clary’s love interest and the male main lead, Jace. Jace certainly had a troubled enough childhood and adolescence to cause some behavioral problems, I still don’t think it excuses the way he treats other people. I found him overwhelmingly self-absorbed and hypocritically overprotective of Clary. While he often urges her to stay out of danger – to the point of lying to and about her, at one point – he shows little regard for his own life. To me, Jace seemed like your stereotypical alpha male. This really escalates throughout the series.

Overall, I’m on the fence about whether or not I’d recommend the series. I’d probably give the first three books a 3.5/5 rating. The novels are packed with action and interesting characters. However, I find Jace’s character problematic, and think Clare should’ve foreshadowed some of the plot-twists a bit more subtly. I also found the writing level to be slightly disappointing. I would have preferred if Clare left more to subtext, rather than directly telling readers what every character was feeling. While the omniscient third-person narration with many POV-shifts contributed to the dramatic tension, by creating a gap between what the reader knows (everything) and what the characters know (bits and pieces), it sometimes left me knowing too much too soon, making it occasionally predictable. On the whole, I nevertheless found the series engaging and compelling. I would probably recommend the books with the stipulation that one is looking for a gripping, fast-paced action novel, rather than a more meditative, expertly crafted book.

Are there any books you’ve read just to see what all the hype was about? Did they live up to your expectations? Let me know in comments.

City of Bones on GoodReads
Cassandra Clare’s Website

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Mr. Pudgins

I’m sure everyone has those burning questions keeping them awake at night. The things about themselves that they just don’t understand, no matter how many rainy days they spend mulling them over. Secrets that, when revealed, turn animated conversation to shocked silence. But I think the time has come for me to confess my most shameful secret: I don’t like Mary Poppins.

“What?” I hear you gasp. “Not like Mary Poppins? Everybody likes Mary Poppins!”

I don’t dislike it, per se, but the most I’ve ever been able to conjure up for the movie is a bland indifference. And while perhaps not my most haunting question, I have spent a substantial amount of time wondering why this is. Mary Poppins seems like something I should like. Whimsical, magical nanny? Check. Ordinary life becoming infused with magical events? Check. Dancing penguins? Check. Only recently did I solve the mysterious case of Mary Poppins and the Missing Affection. The answer is actually quite simple; my heart was already stolen by another magical babysitter.

Ruth Christoffer Carlsen’s Mr. Pudgins is one of those childhood books I grew up on. Even as an adult, I remember it with that magical aura reserved for childhood favorites. It recalls those fuzzy early years, my sisters and I curled up on my parents’ waterbed, listening as Mom would read aloud a chapter before bed. She was an expert at doing Voices, using a high-pitched squeal for one character, a lisp for another, capturing the gruff-but-pleasant cadence of Mr. Pudgins himself. It was almost always only one chapter, no matter the amount of begging or pleading glances we employed.

It’s not just my childhood memories that endear the book to me, though. The stories themselves are engaging. The  book revolves around three children: John, Jane, and Petey. Unlike the Banks of Mary Poppins, their parents are rather affectionate.  However, like all parents, their mother and father need to go out every now and then. That’s when their babysitter, an older-but-not-elderly man, comes over and the stories truly take off.

Each chapter contains a new adventure, a feature employed by many of my other childhood favorites.* Some of their adventures include a flying bathtub;  playing with the “mirror children” (the children’s reflections who escape from the mirror); encounters with a dodo bird; and my personal favorite, when all the faucets start running different kinds of pop instead of water. While each new development delights the children at first, each chapter has some dramatic tension as the children struggle to put everything back to normal before their parents return.

I think perhaps that was my main problem with Mary Poppins; while there is plenty of conflict in the Banks children’s reality – namely with their parents – their magical adventures with Mary act as escapist reprieves rather than character-building conflicts. It is the adults in the story that change, more than the children themselves, whereas in Mr. Pudgins, all of the magical adventures are infused with problems for John, Jane, and Petey to overcome.

I highly recommend Mr. Pudgins to everyone. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out its thirty-three reviews on Amazon, all five-stars; or its 4.51 GoodReads rating. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print. This may have something to do with the fact that Mr. Pudgins’ pipe-smoking serves as the catalyst for all of the magical events in the book. The story was first published in 1951, long before the dangers of smoking were widely-known. Maybe they are reluctant to reprint lest they are accused of encouraging pipe-smoking in children? Just speculating why such a wonderful book is no longer widely available. At any rate, although the book is out of print, there are several used copies available on Amazon** for decent prices.

Have a passionate defense of Mary Poppins? Or favorite childhood books or reading memories? Feel free to share in the comments.

*Similar childhood favorites  include Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Pippi Longstocking.
**I swear I am not trying to plug Amazon so much. If you know any other sites where Mr. Pudgins might be affordable and available, please let me know.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce’s novels have been a cornerstone of my book collection since I was fifteen. I was in a bit of a reading slump at the time, and her YA fantasy novels offered me culturally diverse worlds to discover; nuanced villains to denounce; and, best of all, three-dimensional, kick-ass heroines to emulate. Tamora Pierce is one of the first authors I discovered who allowed her female characters to be both warriors and women. Their ability to fight didn’t negate their ability to fall in love with princes, or wear dresses; conversely, having pierced ears or love interests didn’t detract from their fighting abilities.

By this point Tamora Pierce has created two universes and published five quartets, one trilogy, one duology*, two stand-alones and one short story collection. If you’re considering reading her books, figuring out where to start might seem a bit daunting. I thought it’d be helpful to outline some of her different series and give some insight about who might enjoy which ones. Pierce’s novels all fall into two major universes: Tortall and Emelan. I’ll only cover the Tortall series in this post, as those books tend to be more popular.

Song of the LionessThe Song of the Lioness Quartet
(Alanna: The First AdventureIn the Hand of the GoddessThe Woman Who Rides Like A ManLioness Rampant)

Start with this series if you hate spoilers. It’s the first series chronologically, and almost all the other Tortall novels contain major spoilers for it. The books follow Alanna, a noblewoman who disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue knighthood. Alanna is for those who favor feisty, outspoken protagonists and epic heroes. The downside of the series is that it was originally written as a single adult novel, but published as four separate YA books. As a result, the pacing throughout the series is a bit erratic and the first book resolves very abruptly. Although the series generally embraces atypical gender roles, there are a few lines that seem dismissive of non-cisgendered identities. It really is only one or two lines, though, and the series was published in the 1980s.

The Immortals

The Immortals Quartet
(Wild Magic; Wolf-Speaker; Emperor Mage; The Realms of the Gods)

Start with this series if you love animals. While the other novels contain some great animal characters, this series overflows with a wide variety of different animals – both real and mythical. The series focuses on the struggle of its protagonist, Daine, to develop and control her magical connection with animals. While Alanna’s story revolves around her quest for self-acceptance, Daine’s centers upon her search for a sense of belonging and home. Daine is a heroine for those who prefer somewhat shyer, but nonetheless opinionated protagonists. Her connection with animals helps give her a unique perspective on the world.

Protector of the SmallProtector of the Small Quartet
(First Test; Page; Squire; Lady Knight)

Start with this series if you have a taste for protagonists with strong ideals, sometimes to the point of impracticality. Set several years after the Song of the Lioness quartet, the king has changed the law so female nobles can become knights. Keladry of Mindelan, or Kel, is the first girl to openly go for her knighthood. Despite the change in law, plenty of people still believe girls don’t belong in combat, and do their best to discourage her. While Alanna is very much the typical lone hero, Kel is a natural leader and more of a team-player. Kel is also Alanna’s opposite in temperament; Alanna is very vocal whereas Kel tends to keep her feelings to herself. This series happens to be my personal favorite. Squire also marked the beginning of Tamora Pierce’s reign at the top of my reading list.

Trickster's

Trickster’s Duology
(Trickster’s Choice; Trickster’s Queen)

Start with this series if you’ve always wanted to be a spy. These two books follow Aly, Alanna’s sixteen-year-old daughter, as she tries to escape the shadow of her ambitious mother and protective father. Aly gets taken captive by pirates and sold into slavery in the Copper Isles, far from her home in Tortall. Trained in spycraft from a young age, Aly finds herself drawn into a wager with a god, and caught in a foreign country with both an unstable government and strained race relations. While many of Tamora Pierce’s heroines tend to rely on physical training, Aly’s survival depends upon her out-thinking her opponents.

Beka CooperBeka Cooper Trilogy
(Terrier; Bloodhound; Mastiff)

Start with this series if you like crime novels. This series is set two-hundred years before the Song of the Lioness quartet, so it is free of spoilers for the other novels. Beka, the protagonist,  works for the city police force, which is colloquially known as the city’s “Dogs.” The first book starts when Beka is a trainee, or “Puppy,” and the series follows her as she doggedly pursues criminals, be they friends or enemies. This series is very different from many of Pierce’s other Tortall novels. For one, unlike Alanna, Kel, and Aly, Beka is a commoner. Secondly, Pierce wrote this trilogy entirely in the form of Beka’s diary entries. All of the other series are narrated in third-person. The books in this series also work better as stand-alones, as each book opens and resolves a separate mystery; there’s no plotline uniting all three books.

That covers Pierce’s Tortall novels. Which series sounds interesting to you? Which authors do you look to for great female characters? Let me know in the comments.

Tamora Pierce’s Website
Tamora Pierce’s LiveJournal

*As far as I can tell, duology, a neologism, is the best word for a two-book series. I sometimes use “duet” or “set” though.

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February 10, 2013 · 5:31 am