Sunday, December 26, 2010

Duds on the Checklist

I only brought four books with me on our Christmas trip, which is not a lot for me.  But I've been taking other people's opinions to heart--why do you need so many?  So I trimmed down and trimmed down.  And you know what?  They were wrong--it wasn't enough.

This is because there were two duds on the top of the pile.  I'd heard excellent things about Maze Runner, by James Dashner.  I'd heard that it was a must for fans of The Hunger Games and Graceling (they're not that similar, but their fan base has a lot of overlap--me, for example).  Anyway, I raced out for it. 

And I kind of hated it.  I gave it a good go--a full quarter of its length before I gave it up.  But I disliked it enough that I had no urge to push on through.  I may have been prejudiced by the horrible blurb on the back cover:  "A boom exploded through the air," or something like that.  (I maintain that a passage from the book on the back cover never does a book any good and often works against it.)  The book is full of declarative sentences that try to keep the pace moving, but there's just way too much tour guide-style explaining of the circumstances we find ourselves in, and not enough storytelling.

The worst part, though, is the vagueness of everything.  It's told in the third person, but the viewpoint character, Thomas, is someone without a lot of information.  He's learning his way around, and he's in a new and frightening situation.  I can't say his reaction isn't authentic, but it's really annoying--his feelings are all over the map with almost no reason I can see.  Take his feelings about Charlie, his first friend.  Thomas finds him annoying, but then kind of charming, and it's good to have an ally even if he's kind of irritating, but he really wants to be alone so can't Charlie just go away?  But he loves the little guy, even for his annoying habits, which are so annoying and why doesn't Charlie just disappear already?

And since all the characters have no memories of their lives before their current circumstances, there are a lot of plot points that are driven on by strong feelings or senses.  He could sense that the creature wanted to get inside the walls and eat him.  There's no indication of what caused that sensation--a baleful glare, impatient pacing, slathering jaws.  He has a powerful urge to be a Runner, and a sense that he's connected to another character, without any clue what that "sense" feels like.  It's maddening.

So, to be blunt, hated it.

The other one was a random shelf-pick, so I'm not so disappointed to have realized that it wasn't a great choice.  The book is called The Rapture, by Liz Jensen, and it had an intriguing premise: in a near future dominated by cataclysmic weather and environmental upheaval, a young woman recovering from a life-changing accident gets a job as a therapist at an institution for violent adolescent mental patients.  Her most difficult patient has visions of an apocalyptic future that come to be more and more clearly prescient. 

Now, this sounds promising.  And the writer had some skill--the language was thoughtful and beautiful.  It's the storytelling that was missing.  The first chunk of the book was a conversation with a psychotic, which was rambling and repetitious.  I'd flip ahead a couple of pages and find something interesting had happened, but I'd go back and think, "You're going to make me read through all this to get to there?"  And then I'd skip a few pages and get bored, and flip ahead again and repeat.

So, two surrenders.  Oh, and Wasteland: Cities in DustWasteland Book 1: Cities In Dust (Bk. 1), by Antony Johnston.  Post-apocalyptic comics--sounds great, right?  I wanted to love it--I like the art, and if you described the characters and scenario to me, I'd be sold.  But somehow the art is flat and hard to parse.  The characters are hard to keep straight, the factions and creatures and cities and dangers.  The naming conventions are cutesy--characters named Abi and Jamez, danger from "wulves."  It's just too much, and I couldn't get into it, no matter how much I wanted to.

So, onward to better things, right?  Witches, The Owl Killers, Marcelo in the Real World.  One of them will stick.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jerry Bruckheimer's Jane Austen

Joan Aiken, author of The Five-Minute Marriage (the Regency romance, NOT the self-help book for busy couples), has written a number of books based on the characters of Jane Austen.  I loved Jane Fairfax, Lady Catherine's Necklace, and Mansfield Revisited, and so I started The Five-Minute Marriage with pretty clear expectations of a drawing room drama.

The beginning of the book did nothing to disabuse me of those expectations.  Philadelphia Carteret gives music lessons and looks after her ailing, slightly foolish mother, who was disinherited by her wealthy family long ago.  When financial need sends Delphie to her great uncle's estate to ask for a small financial bequest, she learns that an imposter has been using her identity and being supported by the family.

So far, we're in good, solid drawing room territory, right?  But right from the beginning, we kick it up a notch past where Austen would go--Delphie's cousins, believing her to be the imposter, nonetheless solicit her help is convincing her dying great-uncle (a misogynistic old crank who likes to rewrite his will on a whim) that her cousin, Gareth Penistone, is married and worthy of inheritance.

(Let's pause here for a moment to marvel at a more innocent time (apparently 1979) when an author could name her main character Penistone and (presumably) assume you would pronounce it Penny-stone instead of Penis-tone.)

It's more complicated than this--far more complicated--but it makes perfect sense when you're reading it, so I'm not going to bother trying to explain it now. But we'll compact this review by saying that what Jane Austen would have considered a thrilling and possibly lurid tale of secret marriages and impostors devolves into gunplay, illegitimate children, and accusations of poisoning.  Several characters hire coaches and race to beat each other to Kent in hopes of securing an inheritance.  And, in traditional British fashion, a man is struck dead by a startling piece of information. 

In the end, this book was to a Jane Austen novel what the movie The Firm was to A Few Good Men.  Yeah, Tom Cruise was a lawyer trying to solve a mystery in both of them, but in one there was a whole lot more running.  And maybe I liked the better-written one better, but the action was pretty delicious and fun.  

Maybe that's not a great comparison; I like Joan Aiken way better than John Grisham.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


I may have mentioned that I don't really buy books.  There's no point: the books I own always get put off behind the books that come with deadlines (ie. library books), and I'm congenitally unable to stop checking out library books.  My owning a book is the kiss of death to any chance I ever had of reading it.

But I do collect Sandra Dallas books.  I think I'd have a hard time keeping up with them even if I used the library--she's prolific, and has been producing one a year for a while now.  This is particularly amazing given the amount of historical detail that goes into each story, and the wide variation in when and where the books take place.  From a quilting circle in the Depression-era South (The Persian Pickle Club) to a Civil War bride in Illinois (Alice's Tulips), a Midwestern farm girl growing up next door to a Nisei camp in the '40s (Tallgrass) to the denizens of a prosperous bordello in 1880s New Mexico (The Chili Queen), there is hardly a slice of American history that Dallas hasn't learned about in intricate detail.  (Nothing more than 500 miles from the ocean, anyway.)

It's not that I'm a particularly huge fan, either.  I usually enjoy the books--Tallgrass is a particular favorite--and the only one that I didn't like a lot was the first one I read, The Diary of Mattie SpencerI can't even blame her for that, either--it was a good story, but so sad I almost couldn't bear it. 

No, I like her books very much.  But that's not why I collect them.  The reason I buy them is because my grandmother loved them.  Grammy--Mary Kayros Smith--was always a reader, and it's something that brought us together all my life.  She was from a different era and had had a hard life; she wasn't usually patient with people.  But we both loved to read, and I think that helped her feel connected to me.  It's funny to think about her practical, the-opposite-of-dreamy farm wife mentality getting lost in all the fantasy worlds that are part of a literary life, but there you have it.

Anyway, this made her degenerating eyesight in her last years particularly hard for her.  We'd read to her often--my aunts and uncles would come by and read her different things, and I did, too.  Aunt Nancy brought The Diary of Mattie Spencer once, and Grammy loved it.  Poor Mattie, married to a dashing, charming, sometimes violent drunk, far from her loved ones in their sod house on the Colorado frontier.  It made Grammy cry, I think because she felt for a woman who had a hard life, without the love she imagined when she was a girl.  But there are other joys, and successes, and I think that meant a lot to her--though I found it just too sad to bear.

After that, we read them all--The Persian Pickle Club, about quilters (everyone's a quilter in Dallas's books) and a small town murder mystery, and Buster Midnight's Cafe, about a group of friends from a small town, one who became a silent film star and another a famous boxer. The last one we read was Alice’s Tulips, about a flighty young bride who is left living with her new mother-in-law when her husband leaves to fight the Civil War.  I can't remember if we had finished it when Grammy passed away.

And so since then, I collect Sandra Dallas books.  Unsurprisingly, I've fallen behind--I'm three books behind in what I own, but I'm even further behind in what I've read.  New Mercies has been on the shelf waiting for me for quite a while now, but I haven't bothered to read it.  I'm not sure why--I always do enjoy them.  I think it will go on my Personal Library Renaissance list.  Maybe someday soon I'll get to it.  If, you know, the public library becomes infested with poisonous spiders.

I'm kidding.  I'm doing okay, PLR-wise.  And I think I will read New Mercies soon.  It looks good.  I bet Grammy would have loved it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Real Fantasy

The Nancy Werlin books I've read in the past have been gritty realism.  The Rules of Survival was a shocking, intense story of three siblings struggling to live with a frightening, cruel, unstable mother.  Black Mirror was a confused, boring story of a dot-com millionaire philanthropist running a major drug ring under the guise of a community service organization based at an exclusive private school. 

So I was really curious to see what she would do with fantasy.  Impossible was inspired by the song "Scarborough Fair," made famous by Simon and Garfunkel, but a traditional ballad long before that.  It's the story of Lucy Scarborough, who lives a perfectly normal life with her foster parents, running on the track team, planning for college.  Then she turns 18 and a chain of events begins to unfold--her sweet, shy prom date rapes her, calling her an unknown name and speaking a mysterious language.  She finds herself pregnant and, after finding her biological mother's old journal, she learns that there is a curse on her family line--at the age of 18, the Scarborough girls find themselves pregnant.  Unless she can complete three impossible tasks before her daughter is born, Lucy will go insane, just as her mother did.

Now, here's the part where the book is really cool.  It's almost impossible to believe, right?  I mean, on the one hand you have Lucy's gut feeling, the bizarre nature of her rape, plus the journal of a woman who (might I remind you) went crazy a few months after writing the entries.  On the other hand, you have--well, all the logic of the normal, solid-ground world.  And if you think about how you, in real life, would really react if something so impossible was put in front of you--well, the reader generally has way more ability to suspend disbelief than someone who's just bopping along and living their life.

It's pretty amazing, though.  Lucy's adoptive family rally around her.  They start with research--into her family history (five generations of girl babies orphaned when their otherwise rational mothers are raped and then go mad), into the origins of the song "Scarborough Fair" (the family version, which is slightly different from the Simon and Garfunkel), and into how to do things like make a shirt without using a needle, or how to sow an entire field with one grain of corn.  You'd be amazed at what you can do find on eBay (or, well, maybe you wouldn't).

Of course, they do take it seriously, though there is a poignant mixture of desperation and skepticism.  But I perceived every step--Lucy's pregnancy, her research, her budding romance with her childhood best friend--through the parallel lenses of the tough decisions made by a girl who has to grow up fast as a teen mom, and the urgent, life-or-death decisions made in the face of an elfin curse.  It's like looking at an optical illusion--faces or a vase?  But both perceptions are so convincing, so compelling, that I was as excited by Lucy's understanding best girlfriend as I was by her ingenious solution to the one grain of corn problem.

It's not that the story was unpredictable, or even incredibly innovative.  What I loved about this book was how seamlessly it combined a great teen novel with a great magical puzzle.  I'm even more excited now to read Werlin's next crossover of fantasy and reality, ExtraordinaryI'll probably go back to some of her previous novels, too, but I hold out the most hope for another perfectly balanced blend of faeries and high school.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Assorted Comics

I've just read a couple of really enjoyable comics, and it's had me thinking about how hard it is to find good comics.  Besides the part where I'm not into superheros, I think the open-ended nature of the storytelling isn't really my thing--I like to know I'm going to get an ending. 

Still, I've read all of the compilations of Fables that have come out so far, and am waiting eagerly for the next one, Witches.  I also read the first volume of the spinoff, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, which was good, but not as good as I hoped it would be.  I haven't decided yet if that's because it's a different author or because of the short-run, bang-up action format, but either way, it temporarily filled my needs for more in that little realm.

This week, I was wandering by the graphic novels display at my local library, which is in the fiction section and separate from where they keep most of the comics.  They do a great job selecting for that display--a lot of it draws the eye, and I've checked out quite a few books from there.  This time, I picked up Bayou, by Jeremy Love. 

It's the story of a sharecropper's daughter named Lee in Mississippi in the '30s.  Her best friend, a little white girl, disappears in the swamp, and her father is arrested for it.  Lee knows that her friend was taken by a strange swamp creature, but of course she can't prove it.  So she sets off into the swamp to rescue her friend and save her father's life. 

This is apparently based on a webcomic, though it wasn't free so I haven't seen it online.  The next volume will be out in January, and if the library doesn't buy it, I will.  The balance between creepy and enchanting is so tricky, and this book is dark and frightening and dangerous, as well as whimsical and charming.  I'm so excited to have discovered it.

I also read Tower of Treasure, which is a kids' comic that claims to be the first book in a series called Three Thieves by Scott Chantler.  This is the problem with comics in general, though, and recent ones in particular--will there be more?  I really hope so.  It's about a girl and her two friends in a traveling circus.  They travel to the heart of the kingdom, where she finds out her friend is determined to steal the queen's jewels.  When she learns that the queen's chancellor is the man who kidnapped her brother and killed the rest of her family, she's determined to learn everything she can, and hopefully save her brother.  High adventure, high stakes, and  a daring heroine--a great kids' book.

I think I've written about the other comics I've enjoyed in the past few months:  Rapunzel's Revenge and its sequel, Calamity Jack, by Shannon, Dean, and Nate Hale--think fairy tales in the old west.  Y: The Last Man, which failed in a lot of ways as an apocalypse story, but as the tale of a character on a quest, was really good (until the end, which was the biggest throw-the-book-across-the-room letdown of an ending every in the history in the world, not to give anything away).

But there just aren't enough really good comics out there, and I don't have the patience to sort through the mediocre ones.  So I was really excited to luck into some fun stuff.  The next one I have is Beanworld, which is so surreal that I don't think there are existing adjectives to describe it.  When I get a chance, I'll choreograph an interpretive dance to explain it to you and post a video. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What the Heck?

The Night Bookmobile is a graphic novel by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, a novel I really liked.  Some people have called it overhyped, and I can see that, but I found it very thoughtful love story about how much control love has in our lives, and how much adversity a relationship can handle.  Like I said, I really liked The Time Traveler's Wife.

I kind of didn't not like The Night Bookmobile, but I don't think I really liked it.  I'm pretty sure I was getting a lecture from an author whose books I like, the upshot of which was "you probably read too much." 

Alexandra is wandering the city close to dawn after a fight with her boyfriend when she stumbles upon a Winnebago full of books and the odd librarian running it.  It turns out that every book in the Night Bookmobile is one Alexandra has read--it is a full catalog of her reading life, including journals, appliance manuals, and other ephemera.  Sunrise comes all too soon, and she begs to join the librarian on his rounds, but he shakes his head and drives off.  Over the rest of her life, she encounters the library several more times, and spends many more hours looking for it. 

It's a slight book, more of a short story than a novel.  And it's kind of a sweet story--what obsessive reader wouldn't find it fascinating to browse shelves devoted entirely to his or her own reading life?  It's like looking through your own photo albums. 

But in spite of this interesting observation, the point the story seems to be making is that this might not be a great thing.  Are you wasting the time and energy that you might spend connecting with other people?  It doesn't ask if the fantasy worlds of books are worth it--it's not about the worlds in the books.  It's about the sheer fact of books--the piles, the lists, the volumes, the hours, the pleasures.  Without their contents, do they  mean anything?

Maybe I'm reading too much into this--as I said, it's slight.  But I have to say, it's very much like being lectured on health food by a classic French chef.  Yeah, you're absolutely right, but you've devoted your life to creating dishes full of butter--do you really want me to stop enjoying them?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Anyone Named Garth Should Have A British Accent -- I'm Looking at You, Mr. Brooks

Years ago when my friend Melissa moved away, she was cleaning out her bookshelves and she thrust a trio of paperbacks into my arms one day at work.  "Have you read these?  You totally should."  I looked at the covers skeptically--they seemed a little "high fantasy" for me--and thanked her, because it's always been about quantity with me.

They'd been on my shelf for five years or so, and I can't remember why I finally picked one up.  Probably just thumbing through it idly.  I remember that the prologue was kind of dry, but when you get to the real story, it starts out with a girl in boarding school--promising!  With magic powers--awesome!

And finally, I sat down and read Sabriel, by Garth Nix.  (He's not British, he's Australian, but I'm bourgeois and the accent still counts.)  As I've said, I'm not much for high fantasy, and you could say this falls into that category--no dragons, but complicated magical systems, everyone's very solemn and ceremonial.  But he succeeds in the one place that matters, and the one place that solemn fantasy so often stumbles--he tells the small, personal, human story of Good triumphing over Evil and fighting off the Forces of Darkness.

I read Sabriel quite a while ago, but I've been saving up the two sequels.  But when Brenda asked for a recommendation for some good fantasy that she hadn't read, I found it on the tip of my tongue, and that brought me back to reading Lirael--a book that I own, believe it or not!--which I am loving almost as much.

Lirael is a member of the Clayr, a group of people somewhere between a race and a clan, gifted with Sight and part of the fundamental power of the Old Kingdom.  But Lirael is different--her father is unknown, her mother long dead, her looks are unusual, and her sight is nonexistent.  She's not as instantly likable as Sabriel--adventurous boarding school student and gifted mage.  Lirael is anguished, introverted, full of so much longing and shame that she can barely speak to others.  But she's also talented and independent. 

I'm halfway through the book, and most of the first half has been about Lirael's life on a small, personal scale, as she becomes a librarian (yay!), longs for the Sight, and develops her magical powers.  Just now, the story is beginning to blossom in the direction of Destiny and Saving the World, and I'm right there with it.

Good fantasy, like any good story, is about people.  Whenever I doubt a novel, it's because I doubt its being about someone I want to spend my time with.  But sometimes someone surprises me.  Sometimes a guy named Garth is a total rock star.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gloom Books

Sometimes a book will put me in a foul mood.  It's hard to predict which books are going to do it, though.  I mean, it's naturally never the happy ones--though I think when I get to my 100,000th reading of Curious George something bad might happen. 

The first time I noticed the effect was when I read Blindness, by Jose Saramago.  I had to stop reading it (maybe I've told you this story) about 1/3 of the way through when I realized that every time I picked it up, I would find myself irrationally angry at everyone I encountered within an hour of reading it.  Like, not just the irritating people on the train, but the people minding their own business.

I think I'm feeling this again.  The thing is, Blindness was a powerful book, and you could see my emotional reaction as a testament to that.  I'd Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippman, is not in the same class.  It's somewhere in the range of quality where you'd find high-end mysteries and mid-range thrillers, though its pace is a little too leisurely for a thriller.  It's like Alice Hoffman writing a Laurie Moore book. 

None of this is saying anything bad about it.  The story, in essence, is that Eliza, a happy, low-key housewife and mom, is suddenly contacted from death row by the man who abducted her for five weeks when she was 15.  The story moves back and forth between her trying to figure out what to do about him and what he wants, and flashbacks to the abduction.

The thing about this book--the key thing, really--is that Eliza is the most passive person you've ever met.  This is not a failing of the author, though there are plenty of books where a passive protagonist is a bad writing problem.  Here it's the point of the story.  The reason Walter didn't murder Eliza the way he did the other girls is because she was totally compliant.  Her demanding older sister, her warm, intellectual psychologist parents, and later her loving husband and mean-girl teenage daughter all see different aspects of this pliancy.

And now, when Walter contacts her, she doesn't want him to, but she doesn't stop him.  She's pushed around--buffeted, really--by an anti-death penalty activist, by her daughter and her daughter's principal, by her former abductor.  Her whole personality is created around avoiding conflict, bending to circumstance. 

I'm hoping (halfway through the book) that Eliza will come to terms with this about herself--that she'll grasp how much of life is structured around everyone else, how little access she has to her own feelings and opinions, and the fact that what kept her alive was the same thing that allowed Walter to get away with what he did for so long.

The reason I'm blogging at midnight, though, is that the book is pissing me off.  Eliza is, a bit, but no more than the author intends her to.  The book is an unfolding of her character, and that's what I'm getting.  But by nature, everyone in the book kicks her around a little--the opportunistic journalist who follows her to a soccer game, the bullying activist who believes that she's found her true calling when she really just sort of groped around for somewhere to direct her controlling tendencies.  Even Iso, Eliza's teenage daughter, who is really just the classic fourteen year old snarky bitch.  I put the book down, and I'm lying in bed pissed at all these people, wishing Eliza would be mad at them, put them in their place so I can stop thinking about them.

I suppose this is also a tribute to the book--it's engaging, it's got me caught up.  But I'd sacrifice that to be asleep right now, or even just to feel less irritable.

Then again, I've also been sick for a full week, as has everyone in my house, including a poor-sleeping two year old.  Maybe that's contributed to my mood?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Brief Rant

I'd Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippman.  The main character talks like a narrator.  Not the content--she's not giving exposition left and right--but the syntax.  "'Not even Vonnie, difficult as she can be, would go against our wishes.'"  Try saying that sentence out loud.  You almost can't.  You certainly can't say it and convince me you're not reading it. 

I suppose if this is the worst thing about the book, it'll be all right.  Let's find out, shall we?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Code of the Old West

The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell, is a whole other kind of zombie book. Temple is walking the world like Kwai Chang Caine, going where the day takes her, looking around her at the mysteries and miracles on God's earth.  Most of the people left huddle behind walls and wait for the "real" world to return--a world that's been gone for 25 years. 

Not Temple.  She is strong, and fast with her knife.  She can take care of herself, and there are supplies to be found, and the zombies are slow zombies.  There are other dangers in the world, though--people, and other sorts of monsters.  But it's a world full of good people, taking care of themselves and each other.

"God is a slick god.  Temple knows.  She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe." 

The rhythms of the language is amazing--Temple's voice is southern, rural, with the cadence of cowboys.  Her understanding of the world is like that, too--simple, naturalistic, immediate.  She's done things that horrify her, but she's not looking for redemption--just something to do with herself until whatever is going to happen is finished happening.

This is not a book about urgency.  It's a book about the pace of life, and how it unravels before you.  Temple wanders through enclaves of safety, meets other people who roam, sees horrors worse than any zombie.  She earns an enemy--the character most like her in the story, whose sense of honor and wonder matches hers--and travels to leave him behind and to find a future for the helpless stray she's picked up.  But while this plot is strong enough to drive the book, the point of the story is to look around at a world that no longer belongs to civilization, but only to God--in the form of nature, of individual people, and of the wonders civilization left behind.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Charmed Knockoff or YA Treat? Why Not Both?

Let's jump right in, shall we?  The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June, by Robin Benway.  I didn't like this book as much at first because it wasn't quite what I expected.  It's a very small and immediate book--when the three sisters realize they have these marvelous powers, it doesn't thrust them onto a broader world stage.  It changes their relationship with high school, their parents, each other, and themselves.  It's about boys, friends, divorce, and being 14/15/16.

At the beginning of the book, I was expecting something more--epic?  adventurous?--and it felt like it was dragging.  But as soon as I realized I was reading a high school drama that was mostly about dates and boys and figuring out who you are, I realized that it does that really, really well.  The voices of the three sisters are sharp, witty, sarcastic, and young.  I kind of hated all three characters at first, and really loved them all at the end, which is just the right path for the book. 

There are places where it's a little heavy-handed--April's worrywarting has a breadth that is quite literally unbelievable (did you know white bread can kill you?) and June's ability to change the subject from, say, a car accident they were just in to what people will think of her new skirt is maybe a bit more teenagery than I remember real teenagers being. And the level on which their response to their superpowers--seeing the future, being invisible, reading minds--is "Omigawd!" (in every tone of voice you can imagine it uttered)--well, I'd have given teenagers more credit than that.

But what do I know?  I'm 34.  It was a really good book.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Avi Revisited

On advice of readership, I read Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? this week, and I have to say, this book kind of shines.  I think it's because it's meant for younger kids, so some of the inconsistencies and over-simplicity don't bother me as much.  It's a fun small-town mystery, Nancy Drew-light, and a lot of fun.  So I guess Avi's still on the table after all.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Avi

I knew a guy in college named Avi.  He was a friend of a friend, but he didn't like me very much.  The nicest thing he ever said to me (after I gave him a two hour ride home at Thanksgiving) was, "You know, you're not as flaky as I thought you were."

I try not to hold this against the renowned and prolific children's author Avi.  According to his website, he's published about 64 books so far, and I've been reading them on and off since they were age-appropriate, or at least just after.  I've long thought of him as an author I like, but after this week's disappointment, I've been thinking back over his books and trying to think about why.

One of his first books that I ever read was The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. I read it in college, actually, since it was a childhood favorite of my roommate that was lying around the common room for a while.  I think this is why I became an Avi fan, and it's stuck with me for a long time.  This is a great book.  First of all, I'm a sucker for a seafaring tale; secondly, girls doing things that are only for boys are pretty much all winners with me.  And yeah, the premise that Charlotte, ladylike passenger, would end up leading the sailors when the captain is overthrown is pretty unlikely, but in a book intended for 12-year-olds, you can see the appeal.  So yes, Charlotte Doyle, big fan.

Now there's a big window of years here where I could have sworn I'd read and enjoyed a few more Avi books, but looking at the list on his website, I can't see that.  All the books on that list that I've read have been in the past three or four years.  And I didn't love most of them.  Crispin: The Cross of Lead was great, full of history, danger, and adventure, but the sequel, Crispin: At the Edge of the World was, I would say, one tick shy of mediocre.  Shy on the down side. 

I'd say the same about  Seer of Shadows--or maybe it's straight up just-all-right.  This was about an apprentice photographer in the early 1900s whose dishonest boss wants to start selling bogus spirit photos.  This part was kind of great.  But it turns out that the family he's selling his story to is really being haunted--also a promising twist.  Haunted by their daughter who they abused in a positively cartoonish way, losing all the power of the story.

I've been looking back over the Avi experience because I just finished the book Bright Shadow, an older book of his.  And my God, was it bad!  A young girl inherits the last five wishes in the kingdom, along with the warning to use them wisely and not to tell anyone about them.  She has no other information.  The cruel king knows the wishes are out there and needs to find the person who has them to prevent an uprising.  Morwenna (our "heroine") is one of the most passive, indecisive, useless people I've ever had to read about.  And this is not about her learning to have strength--she remains passive and undecided right up to the very end, while the action of the story takes place around her.  Her only proactive moves are to occasionally try to flee--not from the bad guys, but from responsibility.  At no point does she step up, become empowered, or even experience a glimmer of usefulness.

So yeah, I hated this book.  And it made me look back and wonder where I got the idea that I liked Avi so much.  But you know what?  I'll give him The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and I'll give him the first Crispin book.  And heck, I'll even read the third one.  But I'm going to resist his clever titles from now on.  I know my limits.