Book Reviews

The Princess and Curdie
George MacDonald; Penguin Classics

George MacDonald was reportedly the favorite author of a very young JRR Tolkien, so perhaps he can be described as the grandfather of modern fantasy. First published in 1882, The Princess and Curdie is the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, a true fairy tale, complete with fairy grandmothers, goblins, and a young pure hero, in the form of Curdie, the son of a miner, and a miner himself, who rescues the innocent Princess Irene who’s been kidnapped and held hostage in the middle of a mountain by scheming goblins. The simple moral is to be open to believing without seeing.

In this book, set a year after the previous volume, Curdie has lost some of his purity, and the fairy grandmother, whom he couldn’t see in the first book, sets a shamed Curdie on a quest to save his king and kingdom. The message is more complex this time. While it’s still about faith and trust in something greater than oneself, it’s also about recognizing who is worthy of faith and trust.

Some of the language is archaic and there’s some religion here and there (MacDonald was an Anglican minister before his superiors realized he wasn’t proclaiming their message with proper respect for convention), this is a largely unknown classic that deserves more attention. Of particular note is the goddess-like characterization of the great-great grandmother.


Gathering Blue
Lois Lowry; Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Nicely rendered sequel to The Giver, Lowry’s trilogy centers or three different visions of post-apocalyptic human society. The Giver focuses on Jonas’ village, where equality, convention, and respect for authority are valued above all. We read The Giver in our eighth grade Utopia unit— wherein the class came to the conclusion that Utopia is a naive fantasy. It was a sad day.

The village in Gathering Blue is much different. Kira’s society is much more primitive than Jonas’. While everyone works together for survival, there is no community spirit or goodwill, even within families, and while there is more personal freedom, there’s also much more violence and open hostility. Kira, born with a twisted leg, should have been exposed at birth, according to the community’s traditions. But Kira is gifted with needle and thread, and when her mother dies, she is taken into the government building to serve the Council with other gifted youth (whose parents also **SPOILER** died mysteriously).

I also liked the hints here about previous civilization, both in the the ceremonial song, and the clues in the landscape; the government building. Lowry subtly describes the people’s bewilderment at such lost knowledge, much like people in the Middle Ages must have marveled over aqueducts and Roman ruins.
A quick read, expertly executed. It brought me right back to eighth grade Humanities class.

The Borrowers Aloft
Mary Norton; Odyssey Classics

For those who don’t know, borrowers are tiny beings who live alongside humans, surviving by salvaging our castoff items. In this volume, Pod, Homily and Arrietty Clock think they’ve found the perfect home, but, horror of horrors, they’re quickly seen by not one but two humans. They’re soon kidnapped by a couple who wish to keep the Clocks captive in their miniature village. A gentle adventure through the English countryside in the first half of the twentieth century.

Little, Big
John Crowley; Harper Perennial Modern Classics

I’ve been reading this since late March, and I’m almost, almost done now. It’s had an almost otherworldly soporific effect on me, but I can’t say I’ve ever been bored with it. In fact, I find the writing absolutely lovely, to the point that I don’t mind that the plot is secondary. There’s a story in it, don’t get me wrong, but not much happens. Now that I consider it, though, this may be part of the Crowley’s plan. Little, Big has been described as a fairy story without fairies, and while it is true they appear very rarely, their influence is felt at all times. The fairies’ motives are their own, and while they may feel affection for one human or another, that would never deter them from using (and hurting) the person for their own purposes. Perhaps the reader is meant to see the characters in the same light as the fairies do. Sweet enough in their own way, but not compelling.

The story (or Tale, if you like) is multi-generational, and it shares the problems of Wuthering Heights, The Forsyte Saga, the Poldark series: the younger generation simply isn’t very interesting. The younger generation lacks the fire and ferocity of the elder. But with Little, Big, substitute ‘serenity and depth of understanding’ for ‘fire and ferocity’.

Nevertheless, the writing is so precise, lyrical, and fluid. It’s not a book I’d read again, but it will stay with me for a long, long time.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers
E. Nesbit; Puffin

Six siblings attempt to “restore the fallen fortunes of the House of Bastable” when their father’s business flounders following their mother’s death. They’re too poor to afford school anymore, so the children entertain themselves with honorable and not-so-honorable pursuits to earn pocket money and help their father’s finances. Funny and old-fashioned, in the best possible sense. As with The Enchanted Castle, though, there’s also a certain amount of jovial racism, but it’s not constant, and it doesn’t overwhelm the story’s larger charm.

Moominpappa’s Memoirs
Tove Jansson; Farrar Straus & Giroux

As the title suggests, Moominpappa is writing his memoirs, from his earliest memories of his childhood at The Hemulen’s orphanage to the day he rescued Moominmamma from a stormy sea. The characteristic vanity and vague pathos, present in all of the Moomin books, is here, as well. A good introduction to Moominvalley and its history.

The Ropemaker
Peter Dickinson; Delacorte Books for Young Readers
A well-paced, thoughtful fantasy, by a master of the craft. For nineteen generations, family legends have kept the women in Tilja’s family singing to the cedars of the forest, and the men in Tahl’s family speaking to the the northern river. But things are changing now, and the magic that has sheltered their valley is disintegrating, so Tilja, Tahl, and their grandparents must journey deep into Southern Empire to find a magician to renew the power. It also explores Tilja’s coming-of-age as she discovers her own gifts are not the gifts of her ancestors.

Catherine, Called Birdy
Karen Cushman; HarperTrophy
A Newbery Honor Book

Revolves around a 13th-century English girl of minor nobility and her struggle against her life’s rules and her family’s expectations. It’s recommended for reluctant readers, probably because it’s written in brief diary entries, and because of its humor, much of which concerns bodily functions. It’s a fun, sometimes witty read, and it paints a nice portrait of everyday Medieval life (or so I like to think; I don’t have any proof). I also found the mix of superstition, ridiculous hagiography, and religion refreshing.

The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson; Penguin

A thriller novella (is that proper construction? or should it be novella thriller?) chronicling the bizarre, ugly happenings in a sinister country house. Four strangers meet at the behest of a professor interested in the supernatural, but the house has its own plans. I found the victim’s slide into madness awfully quick, but that might be because I put this one aside to finish another book, and in so doing, lost the pacing.

The Enchanted Castle
E. Nesbit; Puffin

Though the plot itself seems staid— four children discover a magic ring that grants wishes and have marvelous adventures on their summer holiday— the delivery is singularly delightful. It’s a bit old-fashioned (in good ways and bad; the condescending attitude toward girls in British children’s literature is sometimes frustrating even today), but it’s also fun and inventive, and it makes a great story for bedtime.

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