The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Read: 25 October, 2016

This is the story of the Grace children. After their parent’s separation, they move into their great aunt Lucinda’s old home – a house that has stood empty for years, ever since Lucinda went to live in a mental health facility. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur…

The kid and I read the box set edition of this story, which combines all five books. Reading them all together like this, it’s hard to imagine how the series would even work as separate books. The first book stands alone all right, but the rest only really have a shared macro arc. They start, plot happens, and they end suddenly, without proper arcs of their own. Even the first book only works as a stand alone because it’s focus is on the initial discovery of the mythical creatures. My most generous guess is that the publishers didn’t want the whole story to look too daunting for emergent readers, but my cynical guess is that it was an attempt to cash in on the series format that’s been so popular with children’s books since Harry Potter.

Taken as a whole, the story lacks a certain focus. There’s an excellent build in the first book, but then it starts to break apart. Things happen, but the atmospheric building is lost. Occasional references are made to the Big Bad, Mulgarath, but he doesn’t really feel like a threatening presence until the final book. It would have been better if his influence were felt more palpably throughout. As it was, the big boss showdown didn’t seem all that much more threatening than the smaller boss showdowns we’d been getting throughout the story. I wanted to give my kid a good scare, but Mulgarath just didn’t cut it.

The strength of the series is in the characters. Every character, human and non, has a unique voice that made reading this aloud both easy and fun. I knew, even before I got to the dialogue tags, whether it was Jared speaking or his brother or a goblin. I also liked the way that each child character was special in their own way – Simon is the animal lover and Mallory is the fighter (and isn’t it wonderful for the girl to be the fighter?). Even Jared, who is your standard Gryffindor reader-insert hero character, begins to emerge as the artist as the story wears on.

The series starts very strong, but loses focus. That’s not to say that books 2-5 are bad, but rather that they just kinda happen, and I think the kid and I were both getting a bit bored with the series toward the end. The awe of discovery of the first book was gone, and there wasn’t enough else there to sustain our interest.

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Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Read: 21 January, 2014

I picked this up in my quest to pre-read children’s novels so that I can be a better judge of what to read or recommend to my son. Since there are many versions of Peter Pan circling around and it can get a little confusing, I read the novelization of the play published by Sterling Children’s Books’ Unabridged Classics (which I’m given to understand is elsewhere called Peter Pan and Wendy).

The story’s major points should be familiar to anyone who grew up watching Disney movies – Peter Pan is a little boy who never grows up. He, and his fairy companion Tinker Bell, take three siblings – Wendy, John, and Michael – to the magical island of Neverland where they meet the Lost Boys, fight pirates, encounter mermaids, meet “Redskins,” and see a ticking crocodile (it had swallowed a clock, you see).

There was a lot more to the story. Peter, for example, isn’t just a little impish but mostly good-hearted. In the book, he is much more like a Trickster, rather immoral. He does do good sometimes, but he can also do bad things. He is, as Tinker Bell is described, “not all bad; or, rather, she was all bad just now, but on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time. They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a complete change” (p.38).

There’s an awful lot of casual violence in the story, and I can see how that’s shocking to many readers. Yet at the same time, I can remember playing these sorts of games as a child, and we “killed” each other entirely without second thought. Why would we? We knew it wasn’t real. This, I imagine, is what Barrie was trying to capture. The characters behave amorally because they are, in some way, conscious of their own fiction.

What I found a bit more shocking was all the gender essentialism and racism. The book is, understandably, a product of its time, but it hasn’t aged well. I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel reading a story to a young child where one woman is so consumed by jealousy that another woman is getting some attention that she conspires to have that other woman killed, and another woman is tempted to run away from home by the prospect of having little babies to be mother to and the joy of darning their socks. (Even if Tiger Lilly is pretty awesome.) Then there’s the “Redskins.” Yeeeesh…

I found the book to be very interesting. It was loaded with concepts that will have me thinking for a long time. But for all that, I didn’t enjoy it very much. The narrative style was very interesting and often funny, but it always kept a barrier between reader and narrative so that I was never able to really immerse myself in the story. I do think that much of it works better on stage.

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The Dresden Files #4: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Read: 17 October, 2013

I had been warned that the Dresden Files series took a little while to warm up, and that’s certainly proving to be true. The difference in quality between Summer Knight and Storm Front is quite noticeable. The story is much tighter, the writing is more straightforward, and the characters are more “in character.”

I’ve noticed other differences, too. The “Noir” shtick has relaxed a bit, so Summer Knight relies more on its own atmosphere rather than simply borrowing conventions. The sexism is also much more subtle – Dresden is still powerless not to help a “damsel in distress” and women’s appearance is still described in far more fetishistic terms that men’s (when men’s appearance is described at all), but the women are getting more agency as the series progresses. Murphy, in particular, is changing quite drastically. Though she’s mostly just a convenient side-plot in this novel, her presence is no longer marked by her erratic behaviour.

The plot for Summer Knight returns to the fairies. After finding out about Dresden’s fairy godmother in the last book, and his debt to her, we find out that the debt has been sold to the queen of the winter fairies. Worse yet, Dresden must complete a task for her if he’s ever to get out of his obligation to her and save the wizards from the war he started with the vampire Red Court. Yeah, it’s starting to get a little complicated.

The only complaint I have is one I nearly always have when dealing with the fae – there’s an emphasis on how alien they are, and how incomprehensible their thinking from a human vantage point. And yet, for the purposes of solving a mystery involving them, and for the purposes of interacting with them, they are written in a way that makes their thinking seem perfectly rational and ordinary (albeit their concerns are shifted towards things and territories and matters that are more relevant to them). This leads to a disconnect between the way that they are described and the way that we see them behave. It’s a minor quibble, but I do wish that Butcher would either spend less time going on and on about how alien they are, or spend a little more time actually making them so.

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