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The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster is a charming morality play written as a boy’s improbable adventure. While often silly, descending into lexigraphic literalism with aplomb, the story engages that childish delight in bending, folding, and mutilating possibility, while at the same time using absurdism to show the natural limits of those possibilities. Written in a light and breezy style, the story rolls along at a steady pace, ready to engage minds with short attentions and big imaginations.
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Bored of the Rings (1969) was a shameless, opportunistic, money-grubbing attempt to make money off the then-current Lord of the Rings craze. It says so right in the introduction. Created by Harvard Lampoon, the parody throws Tolkien's work into the mud, along with popular culture, some stray dogs, an itinerant card shark, and a frat full of drunk, oversexed men with beer goggles. The results is about as stupid as you'd expect, with unexpected moments of the sublime.

In short, this book is a good way to ditch a few hours and have a few laughs along the way.

Do expect the book to offend. That's its purpose. If you aren't offended, then they didn't do their job right.

The book follows the adventures of Frito and Spam, Goodgulf the wizard, and a variety of other brands and product placements that should have made the writers rich, but likely didn't because this was the era before product placements. Their goal is to destroy the Ring, and between here and there, have more interesting adventures that Tolkien's original book. At least they know how to get in, tell the joke, and get out. 

While most jokes are fully adolescent in their executions, a few rise to beautiful sublimity, such as the translations of the various elven songs.

The humor comes come densely packed and thorough, requiring your attention for every sentence. Almost every sentence contains humor, slapstick, or parody to some degree. You don't have to wait for the humor to begin in the least. In fact, the humor is more like the running of the jokes, filling the streets with every humor form known to man and elf.

While the book asserts that's its a masterpiece of parody, that's just it praising itself. As humor goes, its a good diversion, but rarely rises beyond the level of opportunistic. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Witch World (1963) began Andre Norton's tedious legacy of Witch World novels. Flat as the proverbial flat earth, an uninteresting and disengaging hero gets transported to a different world, one of magic and technology, that proves far more tedious and less interesting than our own world. (I don't think it's supposed to work that way.)

I found this book so disinteresting that I dropped it halfway through. I simply didn't care to push through the verbiage.

Whatever charm Witch World has, it doesn't have it with me.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey is a fixup SF novel of a ship containing a malformed human, otherwise called a "brain." The novel read quite archaically, resembling an SF novel from the 50's far more than the late 60's, containing stiff sentences paired with stiff dialog.

If you're looking for the far smoother McCaffrey from the 1970's, this isn't it.

As I read, I often found myself getting bored with each story, the weak plots overwhelming the otherwise dull and underdeveloped characters. Helen, the ship, aside from singing, frequently has no other personality traits worth speaking about.

The book itself is a veiled feminist work, where the ship is paired with a brawn, but the ship works through various brawns as she goes, much like a woman, freed through the sexual revolution, was now able to trade partners. Likewise, the brawns frequently have the character and flaws of bad husbands, especially those bad attitudes more frequent before women's liberation.

While I praise Anne's aims, the results fail more often than they work.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
American Heritage History of World War I (1964) by S.L.A. Marshall lays out World War I in grim detail, reserves no judgements when warranted, and offers no tonic.

The history is an easy read, assuming that a four year long human catastrophe can be called easy. Optimistically, the war could be called an organized generational genocide, but pessimists would sure use harsher language.

The history is a survey work, delving into details where needed, but mostly focusing on the big arcs and the worldwide theatre. Like all war histories, it's rife with names and locations, enough to leave you dizzy and desperate for an atlas. Marshall generally does a excellent job in taking all those dizzying fact and creating although sometimes overly details narrative.

One place where the narrative bogs down is in the description of the armies. If you aren't into the military aspects of history, the movements of Division III and Corps V will make your eyes glaze over. It's just too much to take in at times, often obscuring the narrative of the battle rather than informing it. It's here that Marshall shows military dinkage, where mastery of details overwhelms situational understanding.

With all the military minutia, if I hadn't been learning about modern army organization recently, I would have been completely lost.

The history itself won't stand against any more detailed history, nor any narrower one, but that's no nock against it. From the beginning, the work understands the limits of its narrative, consistently knowing when too far is too far, even with its military dinkage. The history keeps its eye broad, surveying events in France, Russia, the Middle East, Messopotamia, and the Balkans.

For the student of general history and other eras, it serves as a firm refresher of those four dreadful years. For a student of WW1 history, I doubt that this book has anything additional to offer, even as a refresher.

Restoree

Apr. 22nd, 2016 10:35 am
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey is a science-fiction romance that's well worth overlooking in Anne's corpus. However, anyone interested in Pern would do well do read it, for in this unengaging work lies the seeds to Pern.

The plot revolves around Sara, who was kidnapped from Earth, only to come to her senses on an alien planet caring for a patient in a mental asylum. This man turns out to be the future man for Sara, more important to the future of this planet than she knows.

This book is a period romance. The heroine is firmly wedged into her mid-20th century socially appropriate roles as caregiver and woman. Early on she has the agency that she needs to propel the story along, but after a while, becomes bound by her genre's limitations. She can be an alpha social beast, but never the interplanetary hero.

As writing goes, the characters come across as bland. Some have their own agendas, but most of them are just sorta there. You don't really cheer anyone on, not build favorites. Objectively, the cast is entirely forgettable for there's no reason to remember any of them.

Where this novel connects with Pern is in its DNA. Our alpha male is the warlord of his planet, but he's been sidelined. Now he has to regain his command of the planet's fleets to stop an outer-space aliens species so bad that humans have taken to living in caves to escape them. There's an incompetent warlord in the way, of course. Although the planet has some high-tech to it, they're really a low-tech society that's using the alien's own tech to defend themselves. Other familiar features include the Warlord's half-brother, a looser definition of marriage, tunics (Anne always in this writing period), sailing, and council meetings.

Think of this as Pern 0.1. Think of this as Pern done wrong, but necessary in the evolution. It's there that Anne did everything wrong, but found a few things that she had done right, recycling them into those stories that became Dragonflight.

The novel is full of other period references as well. Tapes, screens, and circuits dot the book's vocabulary, emphasizing just how pedestrian Anne's view of the future worked. Not only is this a book brought out in 1967, it would have been written several years before, and if you include shopping the novel, several years before that, so a writing date of 1963 would be a fair guess.

In some ways, I found this novel entertaining despite its flaws. It isn't without merit. The book doesn't get bogged down by its own pacing, the romance moves along at an engaging clip, and there's some fun ideas at work. Being a slim volume, you should be done fairly quickly even with the pains it causes.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
If you know what you think of any other Fritz Leiber book, Swords Against Wizardry (1968) will confirm your opinion. If you love or hate the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales, you'll equally well continue loving or hating them. Here are a handful more short stories collected into novel form.

Myself, I thought the stories overwrought for the fun stories that they told. At time, Leiber settles down into a smooth narrative, but more often than not sticks in so many extra words and paragraphs that you can skim over the story with little effort because the stories contain so little.

I'm not saying that there's nothing there, but at times, he sure does approximate that. Much like weak broth, the stories feel watered down with lumps of meat floating about, but as nice as that meat is, it's just not worth the broth.

If you are sensitive to sexism, these stories sure do have lots of it.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) by Susan Cooper, begins the Dark Is Rising sequence. Three Drew children, Barney, Jane, and Simon, follow clues to discover a long lost Arthurian treasure. However, they aren't the only ones seeking this relic, and those forces are both sinister and cunning.

Although the book is listed as a fantasy, structurally, it's more of a children's clue solving mystery, where the kids move from clue to clue, deciphering their meanings, to an ultimate MacGuffin. The book could just as easily be about hidden atomic secrets and Russian spies. Although there is "magic", it is mostly hinted at and implied, even if implied strongly. By not means is it flashy or even a primary motivator of the plot. Perhaps the book better belongs in the paranormal genre?

As children's mysteries often have some urgency, the book also contains elements of a conspiracy theory thriller. The enemy is intelligent and active, seeking a long lost item of great power. If they get it, then the side of good suffers a tremendous loss. But the enemy isn't dumb, doing its best to out-connive and out-innovate our heroes. The opposition here is very active, adapting their strategies to the moment at hand.

The book works exactly like a film script from the 1960s, as stretches of instigating and parent dodging get interspersed with moments of excitement. The scenes are pretty much structured like film scenes and uses all the expected tropes of the children's mystery genre as seen on TV. As a film, it would be dirt cheap to produce, even using 1960's film technology. (Today, vast waves of special effects would be thrown into it, doing nothing for the film but making it more expensive.)

Overall, I found the book is very tight in its plotting, but a bit weak on engagement. The work was clearly written from an outline, which ensured that hit all the beats that it need to hit, but it doesn't engage emotionally in any other way than a thriller would. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The High King, published in 1968 by Lloyd Alexander, concludes the Chronicles of Pridain. This is the story of the final conflict with Arawn, and the ultimate fates of Taran, Eilonwy, and just about everyone else that we've met along the way.

As a kid, I would have eaten this book up, so I give it generous stars as its target demographic will love it.

Although Alexander does a marvelous job of gathering up and using every character available, and using them rather well, the book feels rather hurried in many places. To me, this book returned the series to Lord of the Rings light.  Often, I felt that events proceeded rather turnkey, with one mini ex machina after another. Turn after turn, I recognized the tropes that Tolkien branded upon the mind of every fantasy writer, or perhaps every editor of every fantasy writer. Make no mistake, you have no doubt that the hero will win, only a doubt about who may or may not live until the end.

As a writer, I appreciate Alexander's use of dangling plots and dangling items. He uses these to produce his many mini ex machinas. Just about every item left unaccountable comes back into play and comes into play logically, down to the last play. If you're a writer and you want to study how to leave bits hanging for later, he's worth studying.

Myself, I reached the end and I was glad to be done. As an adult, I had no deep appetite for this series. The characters never gripped me. The events never carried me away. I just sauntered through the work, always able to keep my distance. Whatever magic that this book contained did not work on me. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The fourth book in the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Taran Wanderer, 1967, follow the adventures of Taran, the former assistant pig-keeper. It is the Pilgrim's progress of YA fantasy, except without the pilgrims.

The tale itself is an ambling one, wandering just as much as the protagonist. Taran bumps his way through an episodic narrative, growing up along the way. Along the way, he meets many peoples, tries many jobs, and earnestly goes about his quest to discover his parentage.

While well written, the book feels empty at the end. It is as if his journey only required that it fill 50,000 words, and then should be done. Exactly how those 50k words happened didn't seem to matter much.

You can cal me a bit thick-headed for missing all the symbolism and allegory. I do that. Each episode does have it's After School Special lesson to teach, with some of them clearer than others. The fault of the story is not that is has allegory, but that you care so little about the allegory that you just don't bother thinking about it.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Lloyd Alexander published the third book in his Prydain series, The Castle of Llyr, in 1966. Eilonwy is sent away to the Castle of Llyr to learn how to be a proper lady. For her trip, her only companions are Taran and Gurgi. This is one of those books that I did not read in school and am only now reading.

To me, the book promised a wonderful comedy, for teaching Eilonwy to be a lady is rather like teaching a pig-keeper to be a prince. Alas, we weren't given a wonderful social comedy on manners vs. an intransigent princess. No, we were given an adventure tale, one where Einlonwy is kidnapped, and so rather than get more Eilonwy, we get far, far less than promised, and to that I object. And what little of her we do get gets shoved into the last few chapters. Boo.

All griping aside, the book moves along wonderfully. It's plot twists feel like twists, yanking you about rather unexpectedly, but otherwise the text is crisp, clear, and enjoyable. The fight scenes are few, which I think rather helps the story rather than harms it. The book suffer a little from, "hey, let's get the gang back together" syndrome, but fortunately, a few members of the gang got pared off, leaving us with a rather more manageable working set.

There are no Lord of the Ring -isms left. This series has fully come into its own, developing along its own way. I rather appreciate the more human-scale dilemmas that the characters face. I guess that the scale would make this a "cozy fantasy," rather than epic. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Published in 1965, The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander continues the adventures of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. My version says that it's a "Newberry Honor Book," which I think means that it didn't quite win an award, but even being nominated is an honor. This was a book that I didn't read when I was young because I never even heard about it.

In this story, the good warriors of Prydain see that the Black Cauldron, which makes deathless warriors, but must be captured and destroyed if they are to have any chance at all. Knowing the plan ahead of time, you know that the plan will go wrong, and so it does.

Although the book still contains a few Tolkienisms, such as a black gate, many improbable meetings, and even more improbable battles, the story holds together quiet well, for the focus of the story is not on the battles, but the decisions that get our characters from point A to point B. While the first book promised a Celtic style story, but only dressed the story up in Celtic clothes, this book delivers to us a Celtic story with a wonderfully mythic feel. Yet, being a more modern story, we still have to hear about making camp and sitting guard.

Our hero Taran now has more personality, and a temper that gets him into trouble. He also has an internal intrepidness that also gets him into trouble, but for all the right reasons. Eilonwyn still has her attitude, but she is nowhere near as inscrutable, off the wall, or cutting as she was in the first book. She's trying her best to be a real character but not quite there yet. Meanwhile, our trope characters (the bard, Gurgi, Doli) continue on in their trope-centric ways, being exactly what their stereotypes make them, sometimes wonderfully so, but sometimes annoyingly so.

My inner thirteen year old would have loved it.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Book of Three is the first book in the Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Published in 1965, the book describes the adventures of the assistant pig herder, Taran. That may sound like a useless job, but when the pig is oracular, giving answers to questions that no humans know, taking care of that pig is rather important.

I did not read the Book of Three when I was young. To me, this is a new book, so I’ll split this review into two parts: what my inner kid thought, and what the adult me thought.

My kid part says, yeah, this is cool. We'’ve got this kid who goes on an adventure, meetings unusual characters, discovers tombs, leads a band, and brings his mission to a success, if through unusual and twisty and turny means. This book contains everything that this kind of book ought to have. All in all, I would have eaten this book up multiple times as a kid.

As an adult, I found that this book contained everything that this type of book was supposed to have. By all, I mean that the writer must have had a checklist next to him. Generic kid? Check. Annoying girl? Check. Inscrutable adults teaching you inscrutable lessons by making you feel stupid? Check. The hero seems to make no decisions yet still succeeds? Check. The whole lot of them deserving to die, yet somehow come out of everything alive? Check.

To say that the book reeks of Lord of the Rings is no small assertion. Wise wizard who talks inscrutably and sounds like Gandalf? Check. Strange creature that talks like Gollum? Check. Dark Lord marching his secretly raised armies about? Check. Hero from ordinary circumstances? Check. Magic swords? Check. I can rather hear some editors saying, “We’d really like something like Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off, but for kids. Can you do that?”

I may knock the story, but I don’t knock the writing. For the most part, all the text is clear and the character come across well, except for our everyman hero who we are supposed to identify with. (Those sorts of heroes are supposed to be a bit shallow so that the maximum number of boys will identify with him.)

I give this book five stars because I think that it really works well for its target demographic. Most of my problems with the book come from me NOT being the target demographic.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
My tour of the 70's continues with Madeleine l'Engle's work, but to get there, we have to go back into the 1960's with A Wrinkle in Time. This is one of those series that I never quite got around to reading way back when, so here at 48 years old, I'm reading Madeleine's work for the first time. This is no childhood book for me.

A Wrinkle In Time is a Christian allegory involving Meg, her father, three seeming witches, and a few other people. By Christian, I don't mean the modern usage of the word where Christian = Evangelical. Instead, this is the Christianity of mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism. This is a realm where the theological matters more than the salvational.

The writing in this book is absolutely charming, and if you are at all interested in writing for older children, this is a wonderful book to study. The sentences are clear. The paragraphs and comfortable. The characters are well formed. The story is neither padded nor sparse. At 50k, it's a short book by modern standards, but quite comfortably within the range of historical children's books. With an economical use of words and no random deaths, Madeleine builds a world both horrifying and evil, one that leaves you colder and lonelier, and a villain that makes Voldemort look like a playground bully.

The plot itself is linear, having a few twists and turns, little of which is unexpected. There is some tension, but not from the usual places. The story carries its share of tropes, but as its a childen's story, these tropes all seem perfectly in place, able to support the story that they form. Yet by the end, all of this seeming simplicity doesn't seem so simple, for fear and intimidation, presented so simply, feel sharper and more threatening.

As I alluded to earlier, this is not a book born of violence. There's a few punches and tackes in there, but no violence leads to any sort of solution to this story. This is a Christian allegory, with no problems being solved through violence. Violence does not lay close to the heart.

Overall, the book tickled me pink. I enjoyed it immensely, and I look forward to more of this series.
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