Peter & Max by Bill Willingham

I seem to be back on a fables, myths and legends type kick again (not that I ever got off it). And certainly Bill Willingham‘s Peter & Max fits right in to that theme.

As the subtitle notes (a Fables novel) this book is an outgrowth of Willingham’s popular Fables series of comics:

Fables is a unique series imagining that all of your favorite nursery rhyme, storybook, and fable characters are real and living in New York City.

The characters have all escaped from their own homelands and gathered in a small area of New York. Of course, this is only the human looking characters. All of the animals, Puss in Boots, the Three Little Pigs, Mother Goose, and more, live in an area of upstate New York Known as The Farm.

I have not read any of these comics but the hook was intriguing.  I immediately thought of the Sister’s Grimm series but with an adult perspective rather than YA. Since I love SG I wanted to check out this similar sounding take on fairy tales. The fact that it came with illustrations only added to my interest.

And those expectations were largely met. Peter & Max is a creative and interesting reworking of the Pied Piper story. It left me wondering if this is a one off building on the comics or whether we can expect more novel exploration of Fabletown.

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Twilight Prisoner by Katherine Marsh

Even though I picked up – and read – The Night Tourist from the remainders/bargain bin at Borders back in July, I just now got around to reading the sequel The Twilight Prisoner:

After traveling to New York City’s ghostly underworld, Jack PerTwilight Prisonerdu has made it back aboveground, to join the living. But if he’s alive, why is he still seeing ghosts?

Jack tries hard to fit in at his new school-and tries even harder to win the affections of his Latin classmate and friend, Cora. In an effort to impress her, Jack leads Cora to the entrance of the underworld and makes a terrible mistake. Soon they have crossed the threshold—and this time, there may be no getting back.

Like The Night Tourist, this exciting sequel blends together the modern-day world and mythology-this time cleverly introducing readers to myth of Persephone and Eros.

I have a bit of a mixed reaction to this follow-up.

While it has all of the same ingredients as the last (mix of adventure, characters, mythology, and history) it just didn’t quite strike me the same way.  It might be because this book deal more with adolescent concerns: Jack likes Cora but Cora likes Austin, etc. Or it could be the more serious tone.

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Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

I have become something of a Neil Gaiman fan.  Not an acolyte of anything, but I do enjoy checking out his latest project.  So when I spotted Odd and the Frost Giants at the library I quickly added to the pile.  After all, it fit right into my recent children’s and young adult kick.

Rather than stealing PW’s plot summary, how about we have Neil himself introduce the book?

I can’t get away, however, without a quote from School Libary Journal, as I like their description of the book.  They describe it as a “thoughtful and quietly humorous fantasy.”  Which was my reaction as well.

As is typical of Gaiman, there is a simplicity to the story but also a playfulness to the prose and  a sense of deeper and darker things lurking behind the scenes.  Odd has that infuriating smile that adds an edge, and a sense of mystery, to this partially lame but brave and generous boy.

While nothing is too dark or scary for young readers, Gaiman hints at the darker and capricious side of the gods and includes an element that will bring a smile to the adults in his portrayal of the relationship between the Frost Giant and the goddess Freya.

This slim volume, originally written for World Book Day in the UK and sold there as par of that charitable endeavor, has the feel of a fable; simple yet hinting at deeper things.  Obviously a must have for Gaiman fans – and fans of Norse mythology – but worth checking out for anyone who enjoys a simple yet well done tale.

The Magician by Michael Scott

Cover of "The Magician: The Secrets of th...

Cover via Amazon

Here is how I descirbed the first book in Michael Scott’s The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series (The Alchemyst):

It turned out to be a grand adventure.  Not the most believable story, for sure, but imaginative and entertaining.

I think that was an accurate statement, but interestingly enough, this series has really grown on me.  The second book, The Magician, turned out to be a even faster paced and more engaging read.

Here is Booklists take:

The Alchemyst (2007), the first book in The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series,  introduced a wide-ranging group of historical figures who have achieved immortality and are engaged in a present-day struggle for the fate of the world. This second entry picks up exactly where the first left off. Allied with the legendary Nicholas Flamel  on the “good” side are teenage twins Sophie and Josh, who are supremely gifted but with powers that are untrained. Countering them is a new archvillain, Niccolò Machiavelli, who, along with other figures from history and legend (Joan of Arc, a trio of Valkyries), swells the already impressive cast. Plundering every imaginable culture of their heroes and heroines is a clever feat, sure to draw all manner of historically and mythologically minded readers. One weakness starts to show through, however. In a six-book series such as this, each installment begins to feel like a lengthy, glorified chapter rather than its own book complete with a satisfying story arc and resolution. That said, this keeps the pace as an exciting and impeccably thought-out fantasy, well suited for those left in the lurch by Harry Potter’s recent exeunt.

I think Booklist captures the pros and cons of this series well.  As noted, the overall plot is of course ridiculous – as any conspiracy that purports to explain the history of the universe and involves mankind being kept in the dark for millenia is bound to be.  And the books have the feel more of large chapter books rather than stand alone novels.

But once you plunge into them and accept these limits they are really great entertainment.  You are just focused on the characters – the reoccurring ones and the ones that Scott keeps blending in – and the race to capture Flamel and the twins.  Scott keeps enough murkey that there is good tension – wondering where everyone’s loyalty lies and what trap might be sprung when you aren’t looking.

Scott has taken a clever hook and managed to keep both the pace and the interest in the characters and the larger story line over the course of a number of large books.  That is not as easy as it looks.  It would have been easy for the creativity to dry up and the story to bog down – or for the reader to get tired of the chase – but I found myself furtively reading every chance I get to find out what was going to happen next and to find some clues about the larger mystery at the heart of the battle for the fate of earth.

But at its most basic it is really just a good fantasy action adventure story.  Interesting good guys and bad guys – and somewhere in between – battling it out across the world using magical powers and the knowledge gained from immortality.  Basic stuff: good versus evil on an epic scale.

My wife and I have both now plowed through the series and are annoyed we have to wait until May 2010 for the next book.  So if you haven’t yet discovered it, I recommend the series for those that love fantasy action adventures (young or old).

For more information also see the Random House site.

Note to authors and publicists: giving away the first book in order to entice readers to read and purchase the whole series works.  This is exactly how I came to be a fan.  Free Kindle version of the first book led me to buy the next book.

The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh

The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh is in the sweet spot of my reading choices these days: YA fantasy with mythological theme.  So when I saw it at a local Borders store for a couple of bucks I picked it up.

Here is the publisher’s blurb that grabbed my attention:

Jack Perdu, a shy, ninth grade classics prodigy lives with father on the Yale University campus. Smart and introverted, Jack spends most of his time alone, his nose buried in a book. But when Jack suffers a near fatal accident, his life is forever changed.

His father sends him to a mysterious doctor in New York City–a place Jack hasn’t been since his mother died there eight years ago. While in the city, Jack meets Euri, a young girl who offers to show him the secrets of Grand Central Station. Here, Jack discovers New York’s Underworld, a place where those who died in the city reside until they are ready to move on. This, Jack believes, is a chance to see his mother again. But as secrets about Euri’s past are revealed, so are the true reasons for Jack’s visit to the Underworld.

Having read it this week I have to say it met my expectations. It mixed adventure, mystery and the history and landscape of New York City with mythology to create an intelligent and engaging story.

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The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber

Cover of

Cover of The Fire Gospel

Sometimes my powers of observation seem riddiculously weak.  When I first grabbed it off the library display and started reading it I didn’t even make the connection between The Fire Gospel and the myth of Prometheus.  The word gospel was foremost in my mind and I guess I focused on the religious aspect rather than on the more abstract elements.  Yes, I know “fire” gospel.  What can I say?  I am not very quick sometimes.

That said, Michael Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White, brings a satirical take on Prometheus to this latest Cannongate Myth volume. And one that is entertaining, and quite funny at times, but that never quite gets off the ground.

But let’s set things up first.

Prometheus, via wikipedia:

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals for their use. Zeus then punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while an eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day.

Faber’s twist:

Theo Griepenkerl is a modest academic with an Olympian ego. When he visits a looted museum in Iraq, looking for treasures he can ship back to Canada, he finds nine papyrus scrolls that have lain hidden for two thousand years. Once translated from Aramaic, these prove to be a fifth Gospel, written by an eye-witness of Jesus Christ’s last days. But when Theo decides to share this sensational discovery with the world, he fails to imagine the impact the new Gospel will have on Christians, Arabs, homicidal maniacs and Amazon customers. Like Prometheus’s gift of fire, it has incendiary consequences.

Sounds like fertile ground for a fresh take, right.  But I think this is one of those books that doesn’t quite know what it is or what it is trying to do.  More after the jump.

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Bringing some order to the universe

Well, actually just a little to this particular corner of it.  Most of the time the content on this site seems entirely random and haphazard.  All too often it actually is.  Little planning or forethought goes into it and that effects the quality.  As part of a sort of New Year’s Resolution I discussed bringing some focus to this site by reading more from a particular author and on particular subjects.  And that idea is about to come to fruition.

The first focus, or theme if you will, of this year is myths and fables.  The idea is to explore in both fiction and non, the idea and practice of myths, fables, and stories.  Now, I am not an academic and don’t plan on presenting an online seminar or anything. It just means my reading, and thus my reviews, will be tied together by this thread.  Not all of it necessarily, but a chunk of it.

Just to give you a taste of what is coming, here are some of the books that will be reviewed and discussed in the coming days and weeks:

I hope to be able to have the time and energy to write about all of this in a way that presents a semi-coherent theme.  Not by explicitly tying them all together but simply by allowing you to see the similar ideas and threads that naturally connect them.

I also have planned some reading on intellectuals I have long admired and studied.  Two in particular I will be reading on this year are William F. Buckley and George F. Kennan.  So stay tuned for that as well.

I hope this process will help me focus my writing and at the same time make reading this site more enjoyable and interesting.  Maybe the miscellany will be a little more collected that way.