Wednesday, January 1, 2014

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Another round-up, this one covering my family's recent car trip from Virginia to Oklahoma, and back.  As you might imagine, we listened to a lot of audiobooks, and I got in some reading too.

Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections: Now this is more like it.  In my review a couple weeks ago, I found Volume 5 of this graphic novel series to be my least favorite of Sandman.  Volume 6 collects several one-issue tales, reading like a collection of short stories, and I found this volume to be much more entertaining.  As always, the tales involve the Sandman, also known as Morpheus, or Dream. This is the guy who visits you at night and gives you all those stories in your head. He is the king of the Dreaming, a land made up of all the various nighttime places we go to and people and creatures we see there.

Most of the stories here have a mythological bent, placing Morpheus into familiar stories but giving them a twist.  We read the tale of Orpheus visiting the underworld, Baghdad during the time of the Arabian Nights, Revolutionary France, and Imperial Russia, among others.  I think my favorite story was August, about the Roman emperor Augustus in his final days.  He decides for one day to disguise himself as a beggar and sit in the streets of Rome with a companion, a dwarf and actor named Lycius.  Lycius wonders why Augustus would debase himself so, and the reader learns at the end what has driven Augustus to this.  Not surprisingly, Morpheus had something to do with it, although I won't give away what.

Ruins of Gorlan: This is the first novel in the Ranger's Apprentice YA fantasy series.  This is one of my eight-year old son's favorite books, so I was interested to hear the audio version on our trip.  Alas, I wasn't so impressed as my son.

The series follows Will, an orphaned teenager who has been taken on as an apprentice by the ranger Halt.  Halt teaches his young charge the ways of the Ranger order: tracking, knife-throwing, moving silently, etc.  I think my son enjoys the high adventure of the series, and the clear and detailed battle scenes.  I was more intrigued by the setting of the book, which seems to be a lightly fictionalized northern England during the Middle Ages, with references to a people like the Scottish to the north, and something very like Viking raids on the coastline.

However, I found the thing pretty dull, overall.  The plot was generic, the dialogue strictly what was necessary to advance the action, and the writing style, while clear, had no special tone or wit.  It lacked the drama of better-written fantasy, say The Hobbit or any of a hundred others.  This series is one I don't especially care to re-visit.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place:  Another audiobook, and a complete and refreshing contrast to the Ranger's Apprentice.  It follows Miss Penelope Lumley, a graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor, Bright Females, whose first job after graduation is as a governess at Ashton Place, a huge manor house.  When she arrives, she discovers the three children mentioned in the job description were actually raised by wolves, and only recently caught by Lord Ashton, an avid hunter.  It is Miss Lumley's job to use her superior Swanburne education, especially the extensive collection of useful aphorisms coined by founder Amanda Swanburne herself, to teach her charges to behave as proper English children and to ready them, if possible, for a civilized appearance at the Christmas Ball, which the Ashtons host every year.

As you can probably tell from my summary, the tone of this book could best be described as arch.  The writing is an exquisite send-up of 19th century English novels, the various situations Miss Lumley finds herself in are hilarious, and the entire book is a delight.  Best of all are the wolf-raised children themselves--ten-year old boy Alexander, eight-year old boy Beowulf, and four-year old girl Cassiopeia--who despite their wolfish habits are really quite charming.  Their pure, good-hearted natures contrast with the polished but spoiled Lord Ashton and Lady Constance, and their rich friends.  I highly recommend this to anyone with a love of English literature.  I'm not even sure I can say it is written for children; although superficially at their level--and my children did enjoy it--the various jokes and asides can only be fully appreciated by adults.

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